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Of the many art installations commemorating the City of Radicals theme for 2011, this is one of the more prominent and playful.  The giant structure, next to the Walker Art Gallery both because it will not ‘fit in’ and for its literal and metaphorical  placing alongside, meta-arting, the stark structures and white spaces of the production, curation and consumption of the absent artifacts it announces with its blankness. The interrogation of the public-aesthetic space orients the further, later gaze ‘within’ the gallery in disturbing and violent dislocation.

The medium of the unnamed installation, the collaborative project of many unknown artists, ellides not only interpretation but the medium itself  since it is designed as a highly functional dynamic whose form is not a re-presentation of any entity or concept outside of itself but is the formalised mediation of its own medium. As such it flickers around a noumenal impossibility.

Taking the catachresis that a book cannot be judged by its cover, the installation covers the entire frontage of the Central Library so that all the books are covered: each text, each word, each letter, all inevitably frozen in a species of gargantuan taxonomy. The old Crown Court on the other side of the art gallery, long closed for business, represents (in the conventional, classical sense) the eradication of all judgment in a world where everything is veiled and covered.

Well worth a visit.

Last week I enjoyed the great privilege and even greater pleasure of meeting Tom Leonard at our writer’s group’s annual residential at the Welsh National Writing Centre, Ty Newydd. Tom spoke about the book and kindly gifted us a copy which I immediately purloined.

As writer in residence at Paisley Library, Tom discovered hundreds of largely out of print books and pamphlets containing the poetry of writers who lived in Renfrew during the period indicated in the title.He set about reading them all, and here he presents an anthology of them coupled to brief biographical notes of each poet. The book also includes reference numbers for those wishing to go to the publications, either in Paisley or at the Mitchell Library in Glasgow. Also included is a thematic guide under the headings of: Religion, Alcohol, Emigration, Employment, Unemployment, Trade Unions and Co-operatives, Anti-Ruling Class, Parliamentary Representation, Republican, Feminist, Soldiering and Police, Literature and Reputation, Town and City, Nature and the Country, Astronomy and Microscopy, Poetry Using Shape.

Tom’s introduction is a gem, and should be read by anybody with an interest in literature, wherever they live. It is a passionate and masterly analysis of the elitist class strand that filters literature into the discarded and the acceptable ‘canon’, and which embodies codes which from high determine what does and does not constitute a proper poem. He examines how ‘dictions’ of the masses are sneered at, seen as degraded or worse, and how ruling ideology attempts to maintain a hegemony of culture that reflects itself as ‘natural’. His most passionate claim is the equality of a human, of a human being the human that they are, and he elucidates what this may mean. The introduction is radical, of course: it begins with the line: Any society is a society in conflict, and any anthology of a society’s poetry that does not reflect this is a lie.

The poems included here are indeed wonderful. Included are extracts from James Thomson’s The City of Dreadful Night, and Tom spends some time in his introduction demonstrating its thematic relevance to our present lives. Indeed, the project as a whole is relevant to our lives. What a marvellous thing it would be to see it repeated in libraries up and down the ‘kingdom’. These days especially when there are desperate attempts by some elitist university literature departments to cling on to their status by resurrecting that old lie of canonical literature’s being a moral force to colonise and improve the groaning underbelly of society (that’s about half of us, I reckon), it has never been more important for us to resist such nonsense and assert our voices by right of being who we are.

What better way to approach the myths of Liverpool than through refracting not only history but the nature of myth itself? Liverpool artist David Jacques has accomplished this well through his first installation at the Walker Art Gallery, and the accompanying street banner which is opposite the municipal buildings and which is shown above. The work marks the centenary of Liverpool’s general transport strike, and also the death of Robert Tressell, author of  The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.

To the left here is the text beneath the street banner. In the gallery, the short text accompanying the Walker exhibition tells of the discovery by the caretaker on the fourteenth floor of Irlam House, a tower block, of a stash of banners and designs left by the mythological art collective which has abandoned the dwelling.  Jacques has long been fascinated with trade union banners, and the imagined banners here are set in contrast with the commercialised production of slogans, mottoes, banners by nineteenth century entrepeneur George Tutil whose work was commissioned not only by trade unions but by the likes of the Orange Lodge and temerance movements.

The caretaker (now embarked on an hilariously titled PhD) negotiates with a curator leading, one assumes, to their eventual exhibition, classification and so forth in an art gallery. The last line of the text has the caretaker saying that he personally thinks his find would be best left in the street. There is thus set up a quirky tension between Jacques’ street banner and the more conventional setting for ‘works of art’. The themes of representation and art itself are brought to the foreground. One of the exhibits in the Walker has painted upon it “Smash the White Paper”, at once a literal reference, and a playful invitation to tear apart the very medium of the reference.

The grids of the main piece at the exhibition and the street banner resemble type setting mechanics; a range of fonts and punctuation symbols is superimposed over each individual tile, these, like the texts and images beneath the banner designs looking like the technology of letters stamped over the paler images of the past. From the letters whole phrases emerge, subversive to the implicit imperative to control and order, tell the story of, the past. Apart from the phrases, there is no apparent order to the letters and symbols, yet closer inspection of any part of the design may bring out seemingly random but sensible patterns such as the repetition of numbers, or an open and closed bracket. The overall feel is of the materials that order the world being fragmented and unstable, yet still with the potential for great power. The use of superimposition – of signs, motifs, letters, symbols stamped over paler images – suggests a palimpsest. Here there is no obvious orienting centre but a swirl of imagery that cannot be fixed, at odds with the technology that exists to fix: history here refuses to be made true or final, it is always in motion. History, like the imagined history in Jacques world is often a myth, what Barthes called ‘depoliticised speech’. Art too, in its conventional setting, with its invitation to encounter a framed finality – of expression, or representation, or place in the order of things – cannot accomplish the task of conceptualising itself, history and thought itself as being at once locked into a series of myths yet also once demythologised opening up to limitless freedom, and specifically the possibilities of subverting dominant representations and discourses.

An ongoing characteristic of Jacques’ work is that it doesn’t make statements as such, although it uses statements all dislocated from their original mooring. The freedom for an individual, and the possibilities for radical action are largely dependent upon the questioning of our current myths – about the past and the present, the same thing really – , about unlocking ourselves from fixed patterns, and our continuous scanning of the world for its action potentials as well as its radical actions. Beneath the headlines, between the lines of dominant discourses,  only there will radicalism be discovered.

 

 

In a wider context, I am reminded that much of history is “stolen” from the past in terms of its debris of imagery, concepts, words, shapes. It may then be arranged, as we would arrange our furniture, to form an order; it’s often displayed in a museum where we literally walk, or in books where we mentally walk.  Much of the historical debris is thin or empty of significance in the dominant historical discourses – a broken doll, an old tram ticket – while some of it fits into a pattern which allows historical significance as determined by the arbiters and traditions of history industries, curators of the past being the clerks in orders. Some fragments -such as the critical mass image above – do have significance in alternative strands, orderings of culture and history. As we contemplate “Liverpool” and “Liverpool History” and “Radicalism” we may be wise to appropriate stuff from the rubbish tips and disregard the rest. We may also be concerned with the methods of appropriation, the quotation marks that are like <<diggers>>, and bricoleurs though we may be, employ our thefts to construct obliquely (imaginatively) memories that are a continuum of past and present.

David Jacques: The Irlam House Bequest

2 February 2011 – 3 April 2011 Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

Pigs of the North

The first time I travelled north was on  a train. I was eleven years old and my primary school took me on holiday to Minard Castle on Loch Fyne. We were pulled by a steam locomotive direct from Liverpool to Glasgow. Then a coach picked us up,

Many years later, I’d go up to Edinburgh or Glasgow direct from Liverpool, sometimes to stay but more often on a daytrip. This was after the dismantling of British Rail,  a sort of residue of the public service ethos before the commercial interests really started to bite.

These days when I spend so much time in Glasgow and have to change at Preston or Wigan North West, the local shuttle trains rattle and stop at such computed stations as Bryn and Eccleston, Roby and Broadgreen: a journey half as long again as the super-railway on the West Coast line which moves at four times the speed hurtling towards Euston. Doubtless it is more efficient to profits to “provide” a service that puts travellers second. (Of course, the separation of train companies from railtrack companies plays a part: no doubt Virgin would love to roll into Liverpool ftom Glasgow).

Well, that just irritates me. A broader sweep on the subject of trains would discuss the efficient, direct and high-speed rail links between Liverpool and London. Yes, people do still need urgently to travel to that centre, that Capital.

Liverpool remains at the end of the track in the imaginative dream of England. So too, the “North”. And beyond the Badlands of a vaguely remembered  dream of industrial workers stepping beyond the imposed limits, an even vaguer dream of steel and Clyde.

Much plaudited journalist Ian Jack wrote, after his incisive few days in Liverpool in 1985, sliding from the pit of Liverpool  as his train “slid slowly uphill through the green slime of Edge Hill tunnel….. Is it the pig who makes the sty or the sty that makes the pig?”

I’d suggest we be vigilant and on the lookout for those who are currently coming in to tell us how to be.

The Base of Creativity

There was recently a man from Turkish Kurdistan who had found legitimate residence in England or Britain or the United Kingdom. He carried suitcases from aeroplanes. In a past life he had been a skilled electrical engineer. One day, the day that people from seven countries arrived to attend a conference for artists themed around dissolving biocultural national identities, he suffered a heart attack brought on from carrying one suitcase too heavy. He has survived. His heart is broken his family fractured, his self split apart but he will survive until he dies. This is Justice – the promise of just surviving until you die.

My apologies for allowing the “Centre of the Creative Universe”  myth such legitimacy. What the minor poet Allen Ginsberg said on his Liverpool visit in 1965 was, “Liverpool is at the present moment the centre of the consciousness of the human universe.”  Some people think it was Carl Jung who said it. Whatever. I am sure the people of Kurdistan or the vast majority of this planet have never heard such words of cultural imperialist grandisosity. Liverpool is no more the centre of the consciousness of the human universe than Britannica is.

Centre of the Creative Universe

Welcome. Along with the Year of Social Justice, 2011 marks Liverpool’s  promoting a City of Radicals theme. This site seeks to explore the images, the representations, the myths of Liverpool. While looking into the city I hope that this exploration provides some ways of thinking, some ways of seeing the world beyond the city.

I’d like the content of this site to be as straightforward as possible . Some posts will be very straightforward and hopefully entertaining. However, there will be some incursions into theory, especially early on. This is necessary, I believe, because the way a place, or person or thing is represented always involves a particular view from who is doing the representing. In short, I believe the making of representations is a political act. Look out too for shades of irony, and even cycnicism!

A great deal has been written about the economic, class and cultural aspects of Liverpool, but while these are utterly entwined, it is the cultural aspect I shall be most concerned with, culture in a very broad sense. In a narrower sense of culture, of course, the ‘artistic representations’ from within, and about, Liverpool are important and will be referred to constantly – ‘artistic’ covering all art forms. Most often, cultural production in this latter sense involves challenges and disruptions to dominant representations of the city within the mainstream.

I’ll also be striving as frequently as possible to employ a ‘poetic’ discourse myself, and to bring in similar sources.

Accompanying the Tate exhibition, Centre of the Creative Universe: Liverpool & the Avant-Garde, Grundenberg and  Knifton’s book begins the Foreword:

Liverpool is a place of myths – as many originating in the depth of time as generated by its inventive people and imposed from the outside.

…..(the work produced by artists such as those at the exhibition is) not the usual contemptuous imposition of stereotypes dealt with by the city, in particular overthe past decades. Rather it presented a sympathetic portrait of the city by artists fascinated by an at times mythical and yet all too real place and its people.

I think that’s true but there are a few problems here. The “contemptuous imposition of stereotypes” is itself a stereotype, for instance; if nevertheless containing some truth the double reference to impositions seems crude in the face of that other great myth of Liverpool’s being a place that will not be imposed upon. The other major problem is with the mention of the “all too real place” – as if ‘reality’ were to be perspicuously, transparently seen unmediated by representation, the very claim that a preliminary study of myth would refute (hence, too, a question mark over such monolithic entities as the city’s “inventive people”)

Still, that’s maybe a minor quibble. But it does give a flavour of some of what I’ll be doing in the less entertaining posts. I want to question language itself, the rhetoric of words, claims for objectivity, implicit transparency (what Barthes referred to, analogically,  as bourgeois ideology turning culture to nature). But enough of all that for now.

It is the case that Liverpool is a city of myths, but there are no places on earth which are not. The question is to what extent the myths of Liverpool provide us with an insight to a wider understanding not only of the social, economic and cultural structures of the wider world, but also spreading beyond to understand the ways in which humans make sense of their world (one crucial meaning of culture), then returning this understanding to the present day city and the myriad cultures within it.

I’ll begin by suggesting provisionally that Liverpool as a concept has a powerful hold on British imagination. The concept is essentially one of extremes.