Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Seven Sites: Experiencing the unexpected

At the start of June, a number of conversations took place between strangers over lunch in Kabana, one of several bustling curry cafes in the back streets of the Northern Quarter. Nothing unusual about that – except that each diner had no knowledge of the person they would be sharing the next half hour with. The 'date' was an actor from Salford's Quarantine Theatre Company, and the conversation topics were chosen from a menu of 'starters', 'mains' and 'desserts' (graded either 'regular' or 'spicy'), at times predictably banal and at times unexpectedly frank. The encounters were both lighthearted and cathartic, like a public confession box for the hopes and fears, ideas and experiences which go unvoiced and unheard on a day to day basis, raising questions about how much we are prepared to reveal to strangers, what we will talk about if we know it will go no further, what constitutes intimacy, what it really means to have a 'local' – and why we don't talk to each other more often.

The lunch dates were the final instalment in a series of events, performances and installations that have taken over seven non-art sites across Manchester and Salford since last August. Edwina Ashton hosted a fantastical tea party in a Salford tower block, and local artist Amber Sanchez took performance to the streets of a Salford estate. Imagined narratives were constructed around hotel guests and recounted by Giles Bailey to a small audience in a darkened hotel room, and a radio programme broadcast a new monument for Salford, which existed only as a composite compiled from Amy Feneck's survey of local residents' ideas.

Seven Sites was a collaboration between curator Laura Mansfield, who is interested in artist-led activity, and artist Swen Steinhauser, who has a background in contemporary devised theatre. Swen explained: “Visual arts in general has a fear of theatre. The two disciplines seem quite divided so we thought we should work on bringing them together.” For Swen, Seven Sites was a chance to be on the other side of art production – working on making it happen for artists, and for both it was a way of trying out durational programming – although, as Laura explains, the project has evolved: “It's become something really different and the rhythm has shifted with each piece. We were interested in doing something that's always shifting but still manages to be a programme.”

The pair chose seven places of everyday public interaction, from the Lowry Outlet Mall to an outdated church cafeteria and the overwrought but shabby grandeur of the Britannia Hotel – a task that was harder than first thought, due to bureaucratic hurdles raised by insurance, security and noise. Seven artists (or groups) were invited to each produce a response to a site, primarily those who had not worked in Manchester before and who “weren't so easy to pinpoint and could work in more than one place”.

By presenting art and performance in places where neither are typically encountered, Seven Sites aimed to subvert the genre expectations of both audiences – at the same time as incorporating the preexisting users of these places, and those who were merely passing through. Laura explained: “I felt frustrated with being part of a certain community, and all the announcements of cuts presented an opportunity to do something outside of fixed spaces. The minute you fix something to a place you always get an expectation of a fixed audience. If you shift spaces you get a diverse audience. Two audiences meet with the general public in a place that's not their own.” Swen added: “ If you frame something it really alters your experience of something that's already there. Certain institutions are associated with a certain aesthetic. A gallery is such a safe environment. We wanted to take audiences away from a safe environment and bring people in to see work they wouldn't normally have seen.” Each instalment existed both on its own and as part of a series. Swen explained: “A single site is dependent on whoever comes and it is difficult to get a big audience outside of a tested institution. A series is less dependent on one occurrence of a big crowd. There was very little continuity of audience. Some people came to one or two but still got a sense of it as a series.”

Seven Sites required the audience to take a leap of faith, with each event advertised only with the barest of information – date, time, artist and location, its exact form remaining a secret until it took place. Laura admits: “Some of the audience thought it was some kind of city tour!” It was also a chance for artists to try something outside their usual practice, and for the curators to step back and be surprised, with the shape of the final work left up to the artist. Laura said: “Your expectations of who that artist could be were changed.” Speaking of Antonia Low, who transformed a serving hatch in a church into an idealised but unattainable white cube space, Laura said: “Antonia really put a spin on her own practice and did the opposite of what she usually does.” One of the most daring of the interventions took place during a regular pub comedy night where, unbeknown to the crowd, Seven Sites presented the comedy debut of Sian Robinson Davies – as Laura says, “She didn't have to worry about anyone coming!” Sian didn't want to be seen as an artist but as another comedian – and her awkward yet funny performance was well-received by regulars who didn't realise they were involved in an art performance. Sian now plans to do another comedy performance, in London.

Seven Sites was a reminder of the fantastical that can be found in the banal, the possibilities in the conversations that usually go unsaid, the potential for places to be transformed with a bit of imagination, and what you might find if you step outside your local and give new things a go.

Photos taken from the Seven Sites tumblr.

Laura Mansfield has curated the exhibition Triptych, which will run from 13-16 July at Three Piccadilly Place.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Tune into architecture: LoneLady's The Utilitarian Poetic/Manchester's Modernist Heroines walking tour to be repeated

As Love Architecture festival celebrates buildings great and good, one installation is reminding us of an equally important part of the built environment which tends to attract less excitement – the infrastructure all around us, that gets us from A to B.

The Utilitarian Poetic makes a new song by Warp Records' LoneLady, resident in one of the nearby housing blocks that is surrounded physically and aurally by the the hum of the car, available to anyone who plugs their headphones into a temporary socket cemented into a slip road where the Mancunian Way curves down towards the ground. The work inhabits a barren, leftover landscape – battered flowers and trees grow out of an undulating floor of rocks, discarded sweet wrappers and broken glass – where one isn't inclined to stop. It's demarcated only by a lavender graffiti tag, one among several impermanent scrawls. The song, 'Good Morning, Midnight', loops metallic percussion, distant echoes and fade-outs over bassy undertones, constantly on the move; even its rhythmic bleeping could be there to guide you across the next road. The hiss of the traffic continues in the background, audible over the headphones, as cars charge past, cyclists puff and pedestrians scurry home.

As I stand, a lone listener plugged into a wall for five minutes, no-one stops to ask me what I'm doing, or comes to have to go. They're all plugged into thoughts and sounds of their own. But it made me think: if our roads are part of the physical, utilitarian infrastructure, then music and dancing are part of a cultural infrastructure that's no less necessary; an unofficial, after hours route to escape where dreams are dreamed, connections are made, friendships are forged and networks come and go.

A pamphlet on The Utilitarian Poetic, including a location map, can be purchased for £1 from Manchester Modernist Society's pop-up shop in the Royal Exchange until Sunday June 24, 1pm-8.30pm. The installation runs for the same period (or as long as the life of the battery!).

In other news, the Manchester's Modernist Heroines walking tour, an outcome of a joint project between the Shrieking Violet, Manchester Modernist Society and the Loiterers Resistance Movement, will be repeated on Thursday June 21 as part of the Love Architecture festival.

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Help Save Library Walk!

Neither building nor public square, park nor plaza, a small public passageway left by a gap between two buildings has become one of the most contested spaces in Manchester after the council announced plans to turn it into a gated, semi-private space. The designs, which were announced last month, would see a well-loved and much-used footpath, Library Walk (which is currently closed as neighbouring buildings undergo refurbishment), blocked by a glazed box by Beetham Tower architect Ian Simpson, which would be closed at night via gates at one end.

Library Walk, a curved walkway nestled in between EV Harris's Grade II* listed Central Library (1934) and the Town Hall extension (1938), has long provided a convenient link between the municipal heart of the city – Albert Square and the Town Hall – and the busy public interchanges of St Peter's Square and Oxford Street. In an area dominated by continual tram traffic, busy roads with one-way streets, bus lanes and taxis serving the large hotels that face onto nearby streets, the lone pedestrian can feel outnumbered and overwhelmed. Library Walk is a rare place that prioritises the pedestrian, providing a calm, convenient walkway that cuts through the jumble and avoids having to go round the bulk of Central Library or the Town Hall. It is the quickest, simplest route from A to B.

While part of Library Walk's appeal is practical, it also has a value which is indefinable, arising not just from its beauty and elegance but its atmosphere. Unlike in many buildings and urban landscapes, here you can lose yourself in your surroundings and be enveloped in the communion between two buildings reaching for the sky. We can all appreciate how Central Library looks from a distance, but it is equally impressive close-up: by following the contour of its curves we experience the architecture too. It's possible, for a moment, to be overtaken by the place and forget where you're going or why, but feel part of a shared heritage and cityscape that exists on a grand scale. Library Walk is a place that is unlike any other in Manchester.

The argument against altering Library Walk is also symbolic. If Library Walk is gated, we lose not just one footpath, but a significant right; the right to control where we are allowed to go in the city. Public safety arguments in the planning proposal cite a rape which took place in Library Walk, and the tendency of people to urinate in the passageway. Ian Simpson, quoted in Building Design, called Library Walk a 'dangerous place', saying: “It needs to be a managed space.”

While any rape is horrific, it is unrealistic to design out all risk from the city. It is impossible to try to police every public space – but it should be possible to provide education, with the aim of creating a culture in which respect is the norm, and facilities such as public toilets. Making artificially sanitised spaces, and designating some places safe and others unsafe, hides the wider issues around where and why acts such as rape take place. Furthermore, when some people take the attitude that women should not be surprised they attract unwanted attention if they walk alone at night, the public safety argument helps perpetuate notions about what is 'sensible' behaviour for women, stipulating where and when they 'should' and 'should not' walk.

The plans for Library Walk are unnecessary – not least at a time when services such as libraries are facing spending cuts. Ultimately, there is no need to seek to 'fill' Library Walk, or give it a function other than as a thoroughfare. The current absence of a structure on Library Walk does not mean it is lacking in purpose, or a place with unfulfilled potential.

The Heritage Statement on Library Walk says: “As a potential tourist destination, Library Walk is not a pleasant public space for visitors to the Civic heart of one of the largest cities in the UK.” I beg to differ. In its own, unassuming way, Library Walk already captures the public imagination, as is evidenced by it being one of the most photographed views in Manchester. As prominent photographer Aidan O'Rourke, who has snapped most of Manchester's buildings, puts it: “It's perfect as it is.”

For practical suggestions on how to register your objection to the plans, visit http://manchestermodernists.wordpress.com/2012/06/04/do-you-object-to-the-proposals-for-a-glazed-link-between-manchester-town-hall-extension-and-central-library.

To find out more about how to involved in a campaign against the proposals, join the Save Library Walk! Facebook group.

Friday, 1 June 2012

Three zines and two films from the Victoria Baths Fanzine Convention

Thanks to everyone who came another packed and inspiring Victoria Baths Fanzine Convention and browsed and bought fanzines, talked to self-publishers about their work, watched the film, came to the talks and asked questions, studied Melanie Maddison's poster exhibition, made pages for the giant Victoria Baths fanzine and helped sell out Deerly Beloved Bakery's stall of vegan delights!
Visitors and self-publishers of all ages came from all over the country, showing the diversity of the publications encompassed by the term: from an artist's book responding to oranges to poetry and avant garde objects, from a new, alternative guide to Manchester to a zine inspired by growing up in crap towns. One zine named after a cat called Elvis got on the train all by itself at Newcastle and was picked up at the other end in Manchester!

Watch Wild Bees Productions' short film, made throughout the Fanzine Convention, which sums up the day beautifully:

A number of new zines were made on the day, including a giant, collaborative Victoria Baths fanzine compiled by visitors who took part in lino cutting/relief printing, button book binding and collaging workshops in the former superintendent's flat.

Visitors dived into the history of the building and were inspired by its beautiful decorative tiles and stained glass windows, as well as their own feelings about swimming, to each produce a page for the finished zine, which was stitched together at the end of the day.
Photocopied images and memories from the Victoria Baths archive were available to cut and paste. Swimmers associated with the building, such as members of the South Manchester swimming club and channel swimmer Sunny Lowry, who trained at the baths, feature highly, along with old-fashioned signs!

View the Victoria Baths fanzine below as a PDF:

Open publication - Free publishing - More archive

Ten year old Louis D. Rogers from South Yorkshire wrote 5 Futuristic Machines, a zine about 'a future space war, but written in the past tense as a history book'. The zine was duplicated using Footprint Workers' Co-operative's risograph machine which had made the journey over from Leeds for the day. The risograph looked like it would be defeated by the stairs, but made it up to the balcony with the help of four strong Future Everything volunteers! Merrick from Footprint demonstrated how the risograph works:

Read 5 Futuristic Machines online:

Open publication - Free publishing - More fanzines

Meanwhile, feminist duo Vapid Kitten invited visitors to help make a special edition of the zine at their stall around the balcony area, in a workshop entitled Vapid in a Day!

Contributors on the day were joined by international contributors, who sent their work in via email. View the finished PDF at:

Open publication - Free publishing - More kitten

Elsewhere at the Convention, visitors found out more about self-publishers and their motivations with a screening of Salford Zine Library's 2011 film Self-Publishers of the World Take Over in the former committee room.
Orla Foster and Peter Martin, formerly of Rotherham Zine Library, talked about their new publications inspired by found material and their Closed Caption project.
PhD researcher and writer David Wilkinson brought back memories for Mancunians of a certain age with his talk on post-punk countercultural publication City Fun. He described how publications like City Fun and record labels like New Hormones were "very much the more politicised yet actually more lighthearted underdog to Factory Records in post-punk Manchester".

David started his talk by playing New Hormones band Ludus's brilliantly catchy pop song Breaking the Rules, which he feels epitomises the spirit of City Fun as being
"political yet whimsical, and outsider yet collectivist...the perfect song to accompany a talk about co-operation and an irreverent, amusing, politicised post-punk fanzine run by two gay women". Linder Sterling from Ludus was managed by City Fun's Liz Naylor and Cath Carroll (as Crone Management) and also designed some covers for City Fun.

Later, Cazz Blase, music reviews editor of Shrieking Violet favourite The F-Word, talked about the significance of zines to the punk and riot grrrl movements.
Visitors flocked to Melanie Maddison's poster exhibition around the balcony of the female pool, comprising 80 posters of inspirational European women taken from the zine Shape & Situate, including some of the makers of the posters!
Technology enthusiasts and zine-makers Chris Watson and Logan Holmes from Sheffield's Shift Space collective piloted the use of an augmented reality app which allowed people to explore the local area and point their smartphones at the building to receive visual and audio content, for example visitors could view how the baths looked in the past, in the exact spot where they were standing, just by holding their phone at eye level.

More photos from the day: