Tuesday, 26 December 2017

Best of 2017

2017 has been largely dominated by turning thirty, which I celebrated by bringing together a large number of my favourite people, some of whom had never been in the same room together before, at beautiful Sacred Trinity Church in Salford for an evening of dancing, music from Manchester School of Samba and feasting, potluck-style. It couldn't have been a lovelier occasion. Other things I enjoyed in 2017 included:


An early highlight of the year was the Jerwood Drawing Prize, the inaugural show at the reopened Turnpike Gallery in Leigh. This exhibition was dedicated to drawing in all its forms, from burn marks, to books, text and language, to film, textiles and photograms, showing the ways in which mark-making can be used to map, navigate, measure and help us perceive the world. ‘Singularity’, a film by Solveig Settemsdal was a worthy winner, suspending white ink in gelatine. Mesmerising and beautiful, yet also somehow grotesque, the ink became tangible and took on human and animal qualities, appearing to come alive and suggesting the movements of a jellyfish or a living, beating heart.
Also at the Turnpike, but spilling over onto the streets of Leigh and Wigan, I enjoyed What I want more than anything else, a collaboration between the artist Mark Titchner and local young people which displayed large posters of young people’s intimate desires prominently on the streets. I found these insights into young people's aspirations and hopes for the future quite poignant (and often revealing). At a time when the nature and form of work and employment, and our expectations of education, careers and security are changing, ‘I want a good job when I am older because … ‘ struck a particular chord.

At Home, La Movida was an exhibition inspired by the Spanish cultural movement of the 1970s and 1980s. The highlights were three films: Clara Casian’s ‘House on the Borderland’, focused on Michael Butterworth of Savoy Books, which explored memory and the way in which personal stories are recounted and intertwined with much bigger histories; ‘Aliens’, Luis López Carrasco's film about mental health, punk, drugs and sexuality; and ‘Folklore 1’ by Patricia Esquivias, which challenged notions around outsiders, stereotypes and traditions.

It was a strong year for the Centre For Chinese Contemporary Art: I particularly enjoyed Michael Wolf’s photographs of Hong Kong back alleys. Elsewhere in Manchester, I enjoyed the Galt toys exhibition at Manchester Central Library, which charted the growth and expansion of the Cheshire-based toy manufacturer through colourful toys, games, catalogues and packaging, placing it in post-war culture. I also loved the large, colourful retro textiles of Barbara Brown at the Whitworth Art Gallery.

One of the highlights of Manchester International Festival was Music for a Busy City, which invited the audience to take ten minutes out of their day to stop and listen in interstitial spaces such as the pedestrian walkway between Selfridges and M&S. As passengers went up and down in the lifts, staring blankly down, a few people stopped, checked their watches and looked up, wondering where the normal pop music of the shops stopped and the piece began, mingling with the clipped, polite tones of customer service announcements.
Another MIF highlight was ToGather by the German-Egyptian artist Susan Hefuna at the Whitworth Art Gallery. Taking inspiration from the materiality and visuality of the street, Hefuna worked with text, light and shadow to negotiate meaning and obscurity. Working with tracing paper and raw ink, she created iterations and drafts of drawings, layered with meaning and suggesting the grid–like patterns of the city seen from above and by night. Elsewhere at MIF, Karl Hyde’s Homeless Street Poem, which brought together stories of local homeless people with new musical work, was a hugely effective approach to exploring one of the city's most visible and pressing issues.

Lindsey Bull’s collaboration with Plastique Fantastique was a standout in a good year of exhibitions at Castlefield Gallery. Bull’s ethereal paintings were juxtaposed with a flamboyant, extended performance by Plastique Fantastique, featuring lots of glitter, a hanging man and an electronic, Fall-esque cover of 'Traitor' by Motorhead, bringing new life to the experience of viewing Bull’s paintings in ways that were both bizarre and brilliant. The final show of the year, Peter Hodgson, was a great close to 2017, showing the work of the Cumbrian artist and craftsman alongside contemporary artists such as Laure Prouvost. The results were both humorous and showed great attention to design and detail.

‘What’s In Store’ at Salford Art Gallery celebrated fifty years of the University of Salford Art Collection, balancing historic development with its current-day collection policies, showing why it’s so important to collect digital art, art from the north and Chinese art.

At the Turner Contemporary in Margate I enjoyed the paintings of Kenyan-born artist Michael Armitage, which brought together contemporary and classical references and political, cultural and social themes using densely worked paint and luminous colours on lubago bark fabric. I also loved Phyllida Barlow’s monumental, stacked structures, shown alongside Armitage’s paintings, which resonated with the seaside architecture of the area such as fortifications, sea walls and defences, and suggested a surrealist artistic lineage.
At the Sidney Cooper Gallery in Canterbury, the surrealist photographs of Claude Cahun played with identity, anthropomorphism and ageing, incorporating natural forms such as rocks, trees, sea and the coast.
The Idea Home Show at Mima in Middlesbrough brought together a series of interconnected exhibitions about housing, showing how the gallery aims to ask local questions with global resonances. Highlights included a workshop by Assemble, giving practical demonstrations of useful craft skills which can be used to make something beautiful, Stephen Willats’ politicised housing commentary, wallpaper by CommonRoom for rooms in standard new build houses, artworks in portable, foldable form produced by the Artist Tea Towel company, and curtains designed by the artist Katie Schwab for the museum shop.

Lubaina Himid was a worthy winner of the Turner Prize and there were plenty of opportunities to see her work in 2017. A highlight was her show at FirstSite in Colchester, where the cut out, collaged figures of 'Naming the Money' were decorated with patterns and magazine photos, and soundtracked with stories returning their names, memories and histories.

The Living Art Museum in Reykjavik, which has a collection gifted by artists, presented work from the archive of conceptual artist Olafur Llarsson, documenting performative actions that ranged from counting fingers and toes to inhabiting corners to walking lines to wearing paint; viewers were also encouraged to encounter the work in creative ways.


In the week that Article 50 was triggered, John Akomfrah positioned himself both as a landscape artist in a romantic tradition and used his recent film installation, Vertigo Sea, at the Whitworth Art Gallery, to discuss themes of precariousness, immigration and the value of labour, and the types of welcome we give new arrivals.
The launch of the new series ‘What We Talk About’ at Mima in Middlesbrough featured four inspiring speakers from Casco in Utrecht, Mima in Middlesbrough, and Islington Mill in Salford exploring alternative ways of imagining and running institutions.  The highlight was artist Maurice Carlin, who discussed the ways in which he has used his Temporary Custodians project to both challenge conventional perceptions of art ownership and create a new community.

At Manchester Art Gallery, Gavin Wade, Director of Birmingham’s Eastside Projects, offered a thoughtful exploration of the role of art and artists in the city, suggesting that artists can be brought together to perform a role akin to a think tank in developing and implementing cultural policy. He asked questions about who funds public art, and who has responsibility for shaping and creating it, positioning the exhibition as fundamental human activity and art as an integral part of life alongside housing, education, care etc. He discussed the ways in which artists shape and change the gallery at Eastside Projects, and the organisation’s ongoing work with Cherwell Council to create an artist’s house in Banbury as part of a public art project.


Films have been getting longer in recent years, but despite its three-hour run-time modern-day morality tale Toni Erdman didn’t outstay its welcome and was the film I enjoyed most in 2017. Focused on a morally bankrupt, vacuous daughter on the edge of a nervous breakdown, her father at first seems excruciatingly inappropriate and is the butt of the film's humour, yet for me he ended up being the hero of the story. The film explores love and family bonds, and questions empty friendships. It asks what it means to be successful and explores the nature of fulfilment, at the time as being extremely funny.

Another darkly funny film was The Other Side of Hope, which was full of hope and small acts of kindness and connection. Set in a Helsinki that was both retro and modern, it felt more human and positively gregarious compared to Kaurismäki’s other films.

The other stand-out film of the year was The Florida Project, with its exploration of freedom, friendship and vulnerability, conveyed by astonishingly energetic performances from the child actors.

The year was bookended by Moonlight and Call Me By Your Name, two very different coming of age tales of nascent sexuality, but both of which I loved for their cinematography and use of music.

I appreciated the brevity of Sally Potter’s The Party, which at 71 minutes was short but fast-paced, stylish and hilarious – I wasn’t the only one in the cinema to laugh out loud – and concluded with a surprise twist at the end which reinforces the message that people and relationships are complex. Despite the familiarity of the characters, it never descended into cliché, featuring a stand-out performance from Kristin Scott Thomas.

I also enjoyed the quiet everydayness of Certain Women, particularly the loneliness and alienation of the first story, which actor Lily Gladstone made touching, identifiable and relatable. By contrast, I also enjoyed the staged theatricality of FencesThe Red Turtle was a wordless but rapturous and immersive story about life. Its animation felt true to life, its big, overcast skies punctuated with moments of terror and upheaval.

The Salesman was an underlooked story about forgiveness and redemption, moral judgements and relativism. Another Middle Eastern film, In Between, was a powerful portrayal of female friendship and cultural expectations.

Two British films I enjoyed this year, which both presented a countryside that’s poor, cold, grim and often lonely, were The Levelling and God’s Own Country. God’s Own Country in particular used the landscape of the north as an effective setting to grapple with identity, education and aspiration, loyalty, duty, family ties, love and masculinity.

Andrew Kötting's Edith Walks, in which a cast of experts and eccentrics walk the English countryside from Waltham Abbey to St Leonard’s-on-Sea, was a silly but effective follow-up to Swandown. One of the highlights is the soundtrack, featuring the voice of Claudia Barton and Jem Finer’s homemade soundbox, along with archive footage of schoolchildren re-enacting the Battle of Hastings in 1966.

Set in the same part of the world, the best documentary I saw in 2017 was the impossibly moving The Ballad of Shirley Collins, which tells the heartbreaking story of how the cult British folk singer lost her voice – and then found it again. Collins, who worked as a charwoman and then in a Jobcentre in the years leading up to her retirement, came across as totally genuine, and the film was mercifully free of celebrity cameos other than an interview with Stewart Lee, a fan, and David Tibet on their longstanding friendship. The film presented a cross-cultural exchange of working-class song between England and America, juxtaposing song with images of the landscape and working the land, and grounded this culture in labour and communist politics. Starting and ending with the magic and menace of bonfire night in Lewes, and visiting other traditions such as the green man in Hastings, the film showed Britain at its strangest and was rooted in the ancient towns and landscapes of East Sussex. The film was extremely poignant both for the absence of Collins’ sister, Dolly, and in the way it dealt with a woman looking back at her youth, with a sense of approaching the end of her own life.

I Am Not Your Negro used historical montage as well as contemporary footage to great effect. It told the story of the great American intellectual James Baldwin and his contemporaries at the same time as telling the story of America – and it’s not a pretty one. Critiquing not just individual action but society, culture and systems, it felt an important film for the age of Trump, presenting a divided nation.

Another film that made great use of archival footage was Beuys, a portrait of the artist and provocateur Joseph Beuys, famous for his saying that ‘everyone is an artist’. Framed by his ongoing Documenta intervention '7,000 Oak Trees', it explored the relation of art to life, asking what role artists should have in society and highlighting his involvement in politics through the German Green Party alongside his art world antics. Despite its historical focus, much of it felt familiar from the public art of today.

Ai Weiwei’s Human Flow was a portrayal of the refugee crisis on an epic scale, flitting around the globe and presenting stunning aerial views in order not just to show the scale of the problem, but to highlight the myriad reasons for large-scale population displacement.

On a more lighthearted note, Kedi told the story of Istanbul through its resident cat population, offering a cat’s eye view of the city that foregrounded both their personalities and intelligence. The film shows the function that cats fulfil in the city, from hunting and pest control to providing affection. Although no-one really owns them, they coexist with the human population in life, work and leisure, and those who do care enough take it on themselves to provide antibiotic eyedrops and kitten milk. Although an apparently apolitical film, discreet 'Erdo-gone' stencils were visible in the background, and implicit was a critique of globalisation and westernisation – the market where many of the cats lived was under threat of clearance for a new road, and high-rises were springing up where orchards once stood.

Travel and walks
I visited Iceland in May as commiseration for turning thirty. The sun barely came out, aside from brief windows of blue – the skies are ever-changeable and the clouds are permanently low-hung – but by way of compensation the sun barely sets in the summer months. As a result, Iceland’s buildings are set up to maximise whatever light there is, with big windows and balconies. The Harpa concert hall, with its thick glass windows, is a place to watch the changing colours of the sky and look out of the city: all roads seem to lead to the harbour, with its views over the mountains. Outside of downtown Reykjjavik, where colourful houses hide behind each other on different levels, the city’s architecture is largely utilitarian, with grey pebbledash houses and estates of modernist villas, punctuated with outlandish churches, built at skewed angles.
The lack of colour in Reykjavik is more than made up for by the street art and creativity of the city, with its quirky design shops. Despite the climate, the culture is surprisingly outdoors-focused. In May, there were lots of tulips and clusters of mushrooms, and a surprisingly large number of cyclists.
Another place with an extreme climate was Bangor, which seemed to be the windiest place on earth – and again, its townscape is split between pebbledash houses and large villas. Huddled at the end of Bangor pier, deserted out of season, I overheard a young woman explaining to her friend the song that would be the first to be played at her wedding. As she recounted the early days of a long-distance relationship, and the travel it had involved, it became apparent that she song she was struggling to put a name to was 'Drive' by the Cars – I was able to help her out. Other highlights included a trip to look over the Menai Strait, a brief curator’s tour of the University of Bangor Art Collection, a trip to Bangor cathedral (where the vicar was so friendly he practically offered to drive me to the Menai Strait himself), and ‘fish and chips’ at a great vegan restaurant. The train to Bangor along the coast was also one of the best journeys of the year.

In Lancashire, I got up close to moorland for the first time on a walk from Littleborough to Walsden via Blackstone Edge, on a squelchy and muddy walk through a surprisingly varied and diverse landscape. The brooding moors retain a rare sense of wildness and quietness.

Nob End, on the fringes of Salford, Bolton and Bury, is a place that despite its name is surprisingly beautiful. A country park on former industrial land affords views of hills, trees and horses, as well as mills and chimneys, through which flows the river Irwell and a now defunct canal, filled with reeds, over which artist Liam Curtin has made a bridge out of giant Meccano, with matching benches and picnic furniture. In summer baby moorhens were present, as well as tiny, just-hatched cygnets.
I continued my Essex explorations with a ferry ride to East Mersea, an island where oysters wash up on the collapsing coastline, into which pillboxes are slowly crumbling, and sea lavender grows alongside strange succulents. Across the bay is Point Clear, largely composed of a village of holiday chalets and a Martello Tower backing onto Brightingsea creek, looking out over the enticingly named Cindery Island – and a Thames Barge picking up scrap. Further inland, the walk from Thorrington creek and mill to Alresford Creek affords muddy, sheep-filled views over the winding creek, through tall grass and corridors of blackthorn, and past a distant church, suddenly opening out to boats, a jetty and abandoned quarry winches. One of the best places for viewing Essex is Walton-on-the-Naze tower, which gives views across the marshes and several counties.
North Yorkshire’s not a part of the world I was previously familiar with, but Staithes – a picturesque fishing village of cobbled streets, cut in two by a river, and overhung by moors and huge cliffs with allotments trailing down the side – was an ideal base to explore the clifftop Cleveland Way, where the mud makes you slip and slide and feel wary on your feet. Between Robin Hood’s Bay and Ravenscar, the moors loom over small farm buildings in fields of sheep and cows running down to the cliffs. At the bottom, there’s an endless variety of rocks, cut through with stratifications and fossils, at the muddy beach at Boggle Hole. I saw one of the best sunsets I’ve ever seen: despite a grey, damp, gloomy day, the soft light blurred the edges of everything and the sky was made pinker by the redbrick of the houses and orange roofs of the area.
Whitby was a much bigger and livelier town than I expected, with an amazing array of buildings presided over by the dramatic abbey. Less gentrified than southern seaside towns, it retains a great variety of independent shops, including an old-fashioned hardware emporium, two wholefood shops, butchers, bakers and a grocers’ selling rainbow chard, quince and fresh turmeric. As expected – especially on our visit the day of Hallowe’en – goths abound; we saw a goth wedding under a whalebone arch, and even the charity shops are full of secondhand goth wear. The cliff-top church was somewhat po-faced, however, in its signage pointing out that Dracula is not real, and asking visitors not to use the graveyard for photo opportunities. We also spotted a seal from the pier. Saltburn was another genteel resort. Although full of independent shops and upmarket bars and bistros, it was also amply served by tabletop sales and fleamarkets full of bargains.
Middlesbrough places the spectacular – such as the transformer bridge which carries cars over the Tees and an outscale Anish Kapoor structure – next to derelict boats, desolate emptiness and post-modern PFI architecture. Mima, in the centre of town, has a fancy café and shop and roof terrace, but it also makes an effort to work with the local community; the foyer was busy with women weaving and families. It also has a really interesting archive of ‘Arte Útil’ projects, both local and international.
Hull felt similar to other twentieth century town centres I’ve visited over the past few years, like Harlow and Coventry, old-fashioned with run-down 1950s buildings. Aside from the iconic Alan Boyson mural on the former Hull Co-op store, which is even more imposing in real life than in the photographs, a real highlight was William Mitchell’s luminous work on Frederick Gibberd’s Hull College, with its uncharacteristically glowing colours gleaming in the late-autumn sunshine.
Oxford’s not like any other city I've ever visited. With huge university meadows and parks everywhere it really feels like the countryside is right in the city. Wandering along the Thames, I saw a deer, as well as lots of apples and unripe sloes and blackberries. It's a very pleasant city to walk around, and very cycle friendly. There is loads to look at everywhere – and there are great markets. But at the same time it’s also extremely beery and laddy and lairy – overrun by posh students shouting at the tops of their voices in the street – and full of homeless people.
Shandy Hall is an altered vicarage where Laurence Sterne wrote the last volume of The Life and Times of Tristram Shandy, with an extensive garden. The Laurence Sterne Trust keeps alive the spirit of Sterne, housing different editions of Tristram Shandy as well as a library of books by experimental authors and artists, and inviting contemporary artists and writers respond to his work, such as a series of artists' editions inspired by the black pages in Tristram Shandy. For me, the highlight was artist Anne Vibeke Mou's etched glass window panes resembling book marbling.

I also finally made it to Bramall Hall, a beautifully restored Tudor home deep in leafy, suburban Stockport, surrounded by green parkland.
Reykjavik’s one of the best cities I have ever visited as a swimming fan. It’s well-served by outdoor pools and hot tubs in densely-populated urban areas, which are one of the most affordable activities in a notoriously expensive city. The art deco indoor pool Sundhöllin, with its rooftop hot tubs overlooking the city, lights up when the sun comes out. It may have been touristy, but the warm, misty, relaxation of the Blue Lagoon was a great place to spend hours floating surrounded by otherworldly lava fields after getting off the plane into the cold Icelandic drizzle.
Two of my best outdoor swims of the year were in the Oxford area: at suburban and well-used Hinksey pool, and at Woodstock lido, hidden away in an unassuming estate on the outskirts of a twee market town.

Indoors, Beverley Road Baths in Hull was both grand and luxurious in its Edwardian detailing – and surprisingly quiet.

Bike rides
Lancaster to Sunderland Point was a gentle ride along the Lune bikepath and quiet country roads. The marshy, tidal Lune leaves mudbanks for exploration by long-beaked curlews and crossing the causeway feels like cycling into the sea, with waves lapping at your feet. Sunderland Point’s few dwellings are grand, terraced houses with big windows. They contrast with an austere mission church, where services are held only on alternate Sundays. The grave of Samboo, one of the slaves on whom the area’s former wealth was built, is tucked away down a narrow, overgrown path, featuring a memorial now embellished with hand-made beads and painted stones.
In contrast, Tame Lane was an appropriate name for the flat landscape of Romney Marsh, where I took back roads from Hythe to Dymchurch.
After years of familiarity with the Trafford and Cheshire stretches of the Bridgewater Canal, I took the Salford branch from Stretford to the mill town of Leigh near Wigan, past architectural landmarks like the lighthouse folly at Monton, where the canal is orange, and dramatic Barton aqueduct. It’s striking how green the canal becomes on the outskirts of Salford, in Worsley, where the city meets the countryside and fields of horses. The landscape changes again as you pass through the former mining towns and villages between Salford and Wigan, with old pit apparatus overhanging the canal at Astley, and scrubby greenery on either side.

The toughest (hilliest) bike ride I’ve ever been on was from Burnley to Pendle Hill – through Nelson, Barrow Ford, Barley and Roughlee, and unbelievably picturesque Pennine scenery. Pendle itself was abuzz with people enjoying panoramic views over Lancashire and the peaks of Yorkshire.


Two of my favourite singers got a double bill when Jarvis Cocker (whose band, Pulp, introduced me to Scott Walker when he guest produced their final album, We Love Life) interviewed Scott Walker on Six Music ahead of his BBC Proms performance. It could have been a hagiography on Cocker’s part, but instead the interview was illuminating and engaging, with Walker coming across as articulate, thoughtful and down-to-earth, and genuinely surprised by the interest shown in his songs by a new generation.


Once I got over the off-putting haunted asylum graphics, I really enjoyed the documentary Leonora Carrington: The Lost Surrealist, which told the poignant story of the British artist and her exile to Mexico, reinstating her place in the Surrealist movement after being sidelined in a group of male-dominated artists.

A third of the way in, the new Twin Peaks is proving to be as characteristically scary, funny and strange as the original.


I loved the smooth yet off-kilter pop song '¿Dónde Estás María?' by Meridien Brothers, combining falsetto vocals and a quirky organ sound with a thumping, time-keeping drumbeat and a raw, rising violin riff.

Other favourites included Terry’s twangy, bassy, poppy punk song 'Eight Girls' and Sacred Paws’ 'Ride', which features their distinctive stripped-down pop sound. I loved the grungy scuzzy guitar sound on Flatworms’s 'Pearl', and the grungy pop song 'Analysis Paralysis' by Jen Cloher.
'Never, Never' by Phobophobes is a rousing pop song featuring eighties-style organ and I enjoyed the funny, slightly stalkerish lyrics of Wesley Gonzalez’s 'I Am A Telescope'. Cory Hanson’s hushed, beautiful 'Garden of Delight' was made all the better for its gorgeous string arrangements and Aldous Harding’s extraordinary voice was used to great effect on the moody and sultry 'Imagining My Man'. Julia Jacklin’s 'Cold Caller' is woozy country meets shoegaze, Hope Sandoval-style. Two of the catchiest and best-named pop songs, meanwhile, were 'I Only Bought It For the Bottle' and 'Let Your Dogtooth Grow' by Halifax newcomers the Orielles, which I couldn’t help but love for its smooth female vocals and swirling guitar. Similarly, I really enjoyed the retro, jangly guitar and languid vocals of Chastity Belt’s 'Caught in a Lie'.

I was pleasantly surprised by new records by old favourites this year. 'Gone, Gone, Gone' was a welcome return from classic New Jersey band the Feelies, featuring their characteristic haunting guitar sound. I know Peter Perrett best as the singer with the Only Ones, and for his work on So Alone by Jonny Thunders, one of my favourite ever albums. 'Sweet Endeavour' is a brilliant pop song featuring his unmistakeable voice whilst also giving a nod to Lou Reed.

Tree Trunks (an indie supergroup of sorts featuring Rozi Plain and former members of Planet Earth and Francois and the Atlas Moutains) provided the perfect summer listening with the dreamy, electronic dance-pop of their Big Rush EP, from the whispered vocals of ‘Big Rush’ and the delicate ‘Days’ to the upbeat disco of ‘You Say’.

I enjoyed the novelty and catchiness of Deep Throat Choir’s album Be Okay, composed entirely of sweet female voices in harmony.


The year started with the kind of gig I like best, instrumental guitar by Jon Collin and DBH, and the atmosphere songs of Irma Vep, in the living room of a flat in a decaying old mansion in Toxteth, Liverpool, accompanied by a crackling fire.
It continued with Sacred Paws at Soup Kitchen in Manchester, a gig that was twice as busy as the last time they played there. Sacred Paws’ two-piece band was expanded for the occasion, but they retained their sparse, distinctive sound.

The Handsome Family at the Quarterhouse in Folkestone were surprisingly jolly for a couple who sing dour country songs. On a more energetic note, I had the best fun of the year skanking with my family – and ageing Fred Perry aficionados – at the Selecter and the Beat gig at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill, East Sussex.

At London Palladium the Zombies played a gig of two halves. The first set featured harder, simpler songs from their early years and solo careers. The second celebrated the anniversary of their classic album Odessey and Oracle, accompanied by psychedelic visuals and reminiscences from the band; it was touching to hear how much it meant to them. Every single note was painstakingly recreated with perfect sound: the Zombies even imported a keyboardist from the Brian Wilson Band in America to help them capture the minute details.


Signal Failure by Tom Jeffreys offered an interesting addition to the genre of landscape writing, documenting an attempt to walk along the route of HS2.

Miranda Doyle’s A Book of Untruths was an effective subversion of the memoir form, incorporating historical, psychological and sociological takes on lying and truth-telling at the same time as offering an intimate portrait of her dysfunctional family.
I loved 67, 100, Sometimes 10, a collection of tragic, comic and true-to-life poems by Manchester-based writers Richard and Sally Barrett, inspired by buses, people and life.
Richard Brook’s Manchester Modern was both a labour of love and a beautiful object, taking design inspiration from esoteric urban details such as the concrete patterning on the Mancunian Way, and providing an in-depth guide to the city’s twentieth century architectural history.
Corridor8’s Ripe productively brought together writing on art, erotica and food production, offering new perspectives on each of them.

Friday, 15 December 2017

Fallowfield Loop damson gin

In the 1960s, Dr Beeching paved the way for the reduction of the British rail network, closing small village stations and branch lines and catalysing the ascendancy of the motorcar as the dominant mode of transport in Britain*.

Some of long-closed lines are now reopening, after decades dormant. Others, their tracks removed permanently and their station buildings now converted into shops and supermarket cafes (as is the case with the former suburban Manchester stations of Levenshulme and Fallowfield), offer cyclists miles of dedicated bike path free from the traffic and aggressive motoring that increasingly chokes our towns and cities.

Manchester’s Fallowfield Loop stretches around eight miles, looping around the south and east of the city. Beginning in inner-city Openshaw in east Manchester and ending in leafy Chorlton in south Manchester, it undulates through the former industrial dormitories of Gorton and Levenshulme, passes picturesque Debdale Reservoir, skirts the boundary of Stockport at Reddish, and cuts through studenty Fallowfield and leafy Whalley Range.
The Loop has the feel of a linear park, offering a backdoor view of the city and its patchwork of official and unofficial green spaces. The Loop itself is an underacknowledged green space. In spring and summer it’s overgrown with branches forming a green tunnel, although in autumn the slipperiness of the accumulated layers of leaves can be treacherous. In winter, the foliage drops right back to reveal numerous back gardens, allotments, recreation grounds, school playing fields, overgrown brownfield sites and industrial land reclaimed as country parks. It links up with other traffic-free routes, too, from the Ashton Canal, with its miles of recently resurfaced towpath, to former branch canals such as the Stockport canal.
The Fallowfield Loop has become a place of community activism and communal litter-picks. It’s also a place of memorial, to young people who have killed themselves. Recently, it’s become a site of protest, with large EU flags unfurled unmissably from road and railway bridges; when removed, they reappear again soon afterwards, imported en masse from China. Pro-EU graffiti sprayed along the path places the UK at the heart of the EU, and the Manchester bee motif is placed centrally within the circle of stars that represent the EU member states; it’s a reminder that Manchester, along with the neighbouring local authorities of Stockport and Trafford, which the Loop passes close-by, voted remain in the EU referendum, in common with several other northern cities. It’s also a place for creativity, from street art murals celebrating the city’s architecture, to hand-written personal declarations (and accusations – ‘Louis K has a tiny penis’). It’s a place to encounter culture, from bicycle theatre troupes offering outdoor Shakespeare performances to public artworks sponsored by the cycle charity Sustrans, which document and draw attention to the flora and fauna of the route. It’s a place of learning and instruction, for small children to gain confidence and practise their bike skills away from the road. It’s also a place for family time: on father’s day, it’s noticeable how the number of men with small children increases.
Not all is benign – once or twice a year the ambush of women or opportunistic robberies make the deadlines, and mounted police undertake regular patrols. However, generally it’s a place of conviviality and sharing: if a cyclist stops at the side of the path, the next to pass will stop to see if all’s okay, and offer help fixing a chain or a spare inner tube.

Although cyclists benefit the most from a safe cycling environment uninterrupted by the frequent stops and starts of traffic lights, the Fallowfield Loop is also well-used by walkers, joggers, dogwalkers, students, and schoolchildren on their way to and from school, as well as shoppers just getting from A to B. It’s a meeting place, too, particularly for groups of teenagers.
These looplines are also fruitful places for the urban forager. Depending on the season, edible mushrooms, horseradish, strawberries, raspberries, cherries, plums, damsons, sloes and apples can all be found along the Loop, whilst in late-summer individuals and groups of people of all ages gather with an assortment of receptacles, from large yoghurt tubs to seaside buckets, Tupperware tubs and carrier bags, to gather blackberries, and offer hints on the best spots.

This year’s damsons were picked along the Fallowfield Loop, in a year that was unusually fallow for apples, yet plums and damsons of varying hues were in abundance.

* For a more detailed account of cuts to train services in Manchester see https://mancunian1001.wordpress.com/2013/03/26/the-reshaping-of-our-railways-1-before-beeching.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Guest lecture, Bradford School of Art, 15 November: 'The Campus as Art Gallery: The Past, Present and Future of Educational Art Collections'

I will be doing a guest lecture at Bradford School of Art at 12 noon on Wednesday 15 November, drawing on an emerging interest in further/higher educational art collections, which has arisen from my PhD research into Pictures for Schools and post-war art education. The lecture, which takes place as part of the 'Random Lecture series', is free and all are welcome.

The Campus as Art Gallery: The Past, Present and Future of Educational Art Collections

Like many institutions, universities and colleges often publicly display portraits of grandees such as chancellors and vice-chancellors in order to convey a sense of tradition, heritage and prestige. Less common but more interesting are those further and higher education establishments which have sought to display works of modern art around campus, turning the educational environment into a gallery space. Universities that have chosen to collect and display contemporary art range from modern, post-war universities, where brutalist 1960s architecture is offset by landscaped grounds filled with sculpture by artists such as Henry Moore, to redbrick Victorian universities, to former technical colleges which attained university status in the 1960s. Here (primarily) paintings were purchased for display in communal areas such as corridors and lecture rooms, as well as more privately in staff offices. Between the 1940s and the 1960s, many teacher training colleges also became enthusiastic buyers of contemporary art as part of a broader culture of artistic patronage among educational establishments such as schools, and art became a part of the training context for a future generation of educators.

Some educational establishments continue to take pride in these collections, make a point of promoting public awareness and access, and continue to actively acquire work. In other cases artworks have been lost, faded into the background or become hidden in the everyday fabric of the institution as universities and colleges have merged, been expanded, modernised and redeveloped over time. This has been due to insufficient documentation and knowledge about the optimum conditions for the display of artworks, a lack of dedicated resource and staff time, or a lack of planning around care and maintenance for the future.

This lecture will explore the historical establishment and development of some of these educational art collections in colleges and universities in the twentieth century. It will explore their perceived educational impact and appeal, the types of artworks that were considered to be of value and use for display in educational settings, and what this says about changing ideas about the nature and purpose of education. It will ask what an educational art collection might look like now and what it might add to the educational experience of today’s students.

Friday, 1 September 2017

Folkestone Triennial: a town transformed by art?

“It’s the best job in the world,” enthuses Folkestone Triennial curator Lewis Biggs, as he bounds along the Leas promenade in a straw hat and tropical shirt. The Victorian seaside splendour of the Leas, lined with grand hotels and mansion blocks, is one of the locations currently displaying new artworks for the fourth instalment of the town’s triennial. Some require the viewer to look hard to spot them – David Shrigley and Camille Biddell recreated one of the Leas’ traditional, ornate lampposts from memory and installed it on the Leas, where it differs only slightly in height and colour from those around it – whereas Richard Woods’ brightly coloured holiday chalets stand out garishly around the town. His fantasy structures float in the harbour and perch on the top of the cliffs, aiming to highlight the impact of second home ownership on the south east’s overheated property market. 
Across the town, the triennial opens up new spaces to residents and visitors alike. This includes a former Baptist burial ground, hidden among a huge redbrick railway viaduct and tall, austere rows of terraces. Accessed via a steep row of steps, it hosts sensor-activated sound compositions by Emily Peasgood. Antony Gormley invites visitors to descend into the dank, cavernous space under the Harbour Arm, where one of his characteristic figures surveys the dramatic white cliffs of Dover and the passing of cross-channel traffic. Hoycheong Wong makes the invisible visible, giving a new façade to an otherwise anonymous Islamic cultural centre, which for 28 years has served the area’s 300 Muslims from a nondescript industrial building. Other pieces blur the boundaries between the private and the public, as in Amalia Pica’s seashell sculptures, positioned in people’s front windows, which reference souvenirs, kitsch and collecting. Other work literally illuminates, in the case of a lamppost in the dingy market square, powered by an experimental mushroom battery, installed by Nomeda and Gediminas Urbonas. Some of the work highlights familiar locations or landmarks. Alex Hartley’s 'Wall' appears to balance precariously at the edge of the white cliffs, constantly at risk of erosion. Other artists bring attention to aspects of the town’s history and economy, as in Jonathan Wright’s small-scale replicas of Folkestone’s fishing fleet – only ten of which remain in operation – developed in collaboration with local fishermen and suspended on posts around the town. Lubaina Himid, meanwhile, suggests an alternative history in her beachfront jelly mould pavilion, that encourages us to think about the links between leisure and pleasure, slavery and sugar.
This is Biggs’ second triennial – he took over from Andrea Schlieker for the 2014 edition – and it’s clear that he considers it a job for life. His enthusiasm stems partly from the opportunities offered by Folkestone’s architecture and geography – “I’m obsessed with art and place,” he explains. “They are constructed in the same way – through material and stories.” The process of choosing work for the triennial starts, Biggs explains, “with a list of places I want to illuminate”.
In large part, too, Biggs is driven by working “in a town small enough to see a difference”. As much as the excitement of opening up places and bringing artists to work in the town, Biggs is interested in urbanism, civic life, democracy and the long-term effect of the triennial. “It’s really important that art is seen as part of life,” says Biggs. “It’s the glue between people in society.” He explains: “I believe that if we get better at constructing art then we get better at constructing place.”
Biggs’ concern with place-making and transformation is shared by Alastair Upton, Chief Executive of the Creative Foundation. The Creative Foundation was formed in 2002 by the philanthropist Roger De Haan, founder of Saga, a major local employer based in nearby Sandgate (De Haan is still chair of the Creative Foundation). The Creative Foundation set out to explore the potential for creative-led regeneration in a town that had “lost its economic purpose” following the decline of tourism in the second half of the twentieth century and the loss of its channel crossing in 2000. For Upton, the raison d'être of the Creative Foundation, which he joined in 2011, is to ask: “How can creative activities make Folkestone a better place to live, work, study and visit?” The answer, for Upton, is by creating a place that has “interesting architecture, buildings and things going on – a cultural life”. 
Both Upton and Biggs previously worked in Liverpool, Biggs as curator of Liverpool Biennial from 2000-2011, before which he led Tate Liverpool, and Upton as Director of the Bluecoat in Liverpool. Upton explains that “historically all the stories about Liverpool were negative”. Liverpool’s designation as the Capital of Culture in 2008 was an opportunity to change the way the city was perceived, both by residents and by outsiders. “The defensive pride that people felt has became positive,” says Upton. 

Biggs, too, explains that he learnt a lot in Liverpool: “I found that I needed to relearn and think again, because art and audiences behave differently in and outside of the institution. In the gallery, the primary reference is always to other art – you are always working in the parameters of art history and it is circular, as it appeals to people who are already interested in art.”
Having seen how art can change places in Liverpool, Upton and Biggs share a sense that there is potential to “make more of a difference” in Folkestone, a medium-sized town of around 50,000 people. In the nine years since the first Folkestone Triennial took place in 2008 the town has undeniably undergone something of a transformation. When the work of the Foundation started, the town had been subject to decades of decline. Like town centres across the country, the high street has been in a sorry state for years: one of the largest retailers, M&S, abandoned the town in 2006, leaving empty shops in its wake. Although community arts company Strange Cargo was long-established in the town, there was little in the way of contemporary art of national or international quality in Kent. For many years the Metropole Gallery, founded in 1961 with the support of the critic and broadcaster Sir Kenneth Clark – a resident of Saltwood Castle in nearby Hythe – brought a varied programme of changing exhibitions by emerging and established artists to the town. However, constrained by its base in an old-fashioned Victorian building dominated by parquet floors, large windows and wooden panelling, it finally wound down in 2008.
One catalyst for the revival of the Folkestone’s fortunes has been the opening of the high-speed train route from London. In 2007, the Kent coast was connected to St Pancras by high-speed train: the journey from Folkestone to London, which previously took around an hour and fifty minutes, can now be done in under an hour. This has had the effect of bringing the Kent coast closer to London; it has also prompted an influx of incomers, including artists, attracted by cheaper property and a better quality of life, still within commuting distance of the capital.

The cultural offering in the county, too, has improved dramatically in the past five to ten years, with the opening of the Turner Contemporary in Margate in 2011 and the Beaney in Canterbury in 2012 (as well as the Jerwood Gallery in Hastings, East Sussex in 2012), as well as new music venues along the coast, from Ramsgate Music Hall to Dover’s new Booking Hall venue.
However, Upton sees the Creative Foundation as offering an alternative to the “concept or consumption-led” gallery model, which relies on a landmark building to create a trickle-down effect in the town’s economy. Instead, Upton sees a need to “make a place for people to make”, believing that it offers a “firmer base for development” and a “change that brings the whole economy with it”. The Creative Foundation started this process by “making a place for artists to live and work, a production base”. It bought, did up and hired out ninety buildings in a derelict and unloved area of town; these spaces are now at full capacity.
Today, the old town is almost unrecognisable. In the picturesque old high street, derelict shops have been smartened up and painted bright colours. The cobbled streets are now lined with coffee shops, small galleries and boutiques. The triennial is just one aspect of this transformation. Alongside the triennial is an established fringe festival, and independent galleries and artist spaces proliferate in the old town. These include the Brewery Tap, which showcases work by artists and academics from the University of the Creative Arts. Folkestone Museum has recently reopened in a new space in the former town hall, telling the stories from the town’s natural and archaeological history, as well as hosting changing exhibitions.
One of the biggest transformations of all has been the reopening of the Harbour Arm, in a run-down part of town that few had any reason to venture into following the demolition of the Rotunda amusement park and the closure of the ferry crossing. Until recently, the Harbour Arm station connected Folkestone to the continent via the Orient Express; although trains no longer run there, it’s been reinvented as a leisure destination, with pop-up bars and food stalls in the former station buildings. Snaking dramatically out into the sea, it offers views out to France and the white cliffs of Dover in one direction, and around the bay to Dungeness power station in the other.
For Upton, another of the big success stories is the Quarterhouse, which hosts gigs, film screenings, comedy and spoken word and other events. Unlike many arts venues, whose subsidised programme is patronised mainly by those in the upper socioeconomic groups, he says its audience represents a very similar demographic to that of the town. Upton also emphasises the Foundation’s work with young people. For example, “every single child” from the town’s schools visits Folkestone Book Festival, there is a drop-in arts club, and there are opportunities for work experience.

There’s still work to be done, for example in promoting and developing jobs and livelihoods for local people in the creative industries. There are opportunities for further connections to be made with projects exploring digital futures. There’s also a need for the art scene to be more visible in between triennials, and for Folkestone to be linked up more with other cultural initiatives across the South East: neighbouring East Sussex, separated from Folkestone by Romney Marsh, now has a Coastal Cultural Trail connecting up the Towner Art Gallery in Eastbourne, the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea and the Jerwood Gallery in Hastings.
The main challenge now, though, says Upton, is “How do you make it inclusive? How do you make sure it remains for everyone?” Upton regards the changes that have taken place so far as “rebalancing” as much as “gentrification”, but the town will change considerably again over the next ten years, as a large area surrounding the harbour area is redeveloped with a much-discussed and long-stalled residential and commercial development. The challenge, says Upton, is that, “as Folkestone changes we’ve got to make sure artists are involved in the very fabric of the town and how it sees itself”. As Biggs puts it: “Folkestone is changing at such a rate. We need feedback between development and the arts. People are now in conversation.”
Upton highlights that “lots of artists in the triennial describe themselves as socially engaged”, and some of the most interesting work at the triennial is that which encourages interaction, or provides spaces for people to come together to talk, think and play. This ranges from Sol Calero’s brightly-painted and participatory 'Casa Anacaona' beach pavilion, which is filled with movable furniture and acts as a social space for young people, to Bob and Roberta Smith’s ‘Folkestone is an art school’, which is working with ten local young people as well as celebrating the artistic activity that already goes on in the area: as Biggs explains, “Folkestone is an art school already – you need to change your attitude so you can see it”. A new ‘Urban Room’ in the recently restored former Customs House at the Harbour Arm houses a library of books about the history of the town, alongside texts on urbanism, art and citizenship, as well as maps and drawings showing the ways the town’s landscape and its uses have changed over time. It’s a place not just to learn about the past, but to add to, to imagine and to discuss the future.
Folkestone Triennial: Double Edge takes place at various venues in Folkestone from Saturday 2 September until Sunday 5 November. For more information, including locations, opening times and the accompanying programme of events visit www.folkestonetriennial.org.uk.