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Nathan Coley’s Illuminated Sculpture, ‘You Imagine What you Desire’ in St Nicholas’s, ‘the mother church of Brighton’

A few weeks ago I headed to Brighton to cover the opening of HOUSE and the Brighton Festival for the Learned Pig. You can read the article on the Learned Pig here: http://www.thelearnedpig.org/edge-and-shift-brighton-festival-and-house/2403 And below are some extracts along with a kind of photo-journal.

IMG_20150502_195820Nathan Coley’s ‘Parade Sculptures’ in The Regency Townhouse

“We’re here at the University of Brighton Gallery on a tour of the Brighton Gallery and HOUSE commissions listening as Varda describes the piece as her “hymn to coloured-plastic”. Entitled Beaches, Beaches, it’s a celebration of the life of summer and all of the colours it proposes. A ludic homage to the bright paraphernalia of the “beach spectacle”, Varda’s installation resembles a half-remembered dream of some now-distant trip to the beach, giddily recalled as a hot explosion of colour and Vitamin D.”

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Rachel Kneebone’s sensual porcelain sculptures and texts

“A relict is “a surviving remnant of a natural phenomenon” and in Brighton and Sussex it’s found in abundance on the coastline in the pebble-dash piled up by the tides. As the voices of the workmen in Loomes’s video tell us: “the aggregate that we dredge up is quite often the end of a riverbed from the ice age. The aggregate won’t have seen the light of day for millions of years, one hundred and fifty million years or more.”

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Souvenirs – Brighton Rock

“Coley’s reflections on the “politics, people and place” of Brighton, which is, in his own words, a “nowhere made somewhere through an act of terrorism”, might make us wonder if the Brighton bombing isn’t the most pervasive “relict material” to survive in this seafront community.”

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A few weeks ago I went on a press trip to the Liverpool Biennial for the Learned Pig. You can read my article and review of the Biennial events across the city at the Learned Pig here. In this blog post I’ve included my own oral parable which focuses on the discovery of a mural painted by my relative in the beautiful Old Blind School building.

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This year the Liverpool Biennial’s constellation of exhibitions, events and curatorial side-shows are grouped under the title, ‘A Needle Walks into a Haystack.’ Whether you read the play of words as a joke, a surreal oral parable, or a maxim on the banal and the domestic: it’s easy to feel like the needle walking into the haystack when you begin your hopscotch across Liverpool’s art map or enter the labyrinthine, peeling corridors of the Old Blind School for the central exhibition.

The power to make you feel like the main protagonist in an oral parable, passed by word of mouth, needle-like, between the blackened terraced houses of Liverpool’s sloping streets, is the Biennial’s greatest achievement. It’s a clever trick and it sucks you in. So here’s my needle in a haystack story: read it, repeat it, pass it on to a friend, and then visit the Biennial and find a story of your own.

Every year the Biennial seeks out venues with their own local character and this time the historic Old Blind School has been chosen as the contextual and cultural backdrop. On the outside Liverpool is a city of quarry-red terraced houses and smoked-black brickwork, its tar dock-waters shrouded under grey, but the Old Blind School’s interior is a peeling palette of inexplicable pastel shades: lemon yellows, mint greens, soft pinks, baby blues and shades of beige.

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In 1791 the Liverpool School for the Blind was founded by local hero Edward Rushton and since then the building has transformed and regenerated itself many times. Over the course of a century this building has housed the Merseyside Police, The Trades Union Centre, a recording studio and performance venue for the young and unemployed known as The Picket, and most recently, the Theatre Resource Centre. The building is a fascinating palimpsest of Liverpudlian social history and testament to the city’s reputation as the pioneering home of welfare.

There’s a palpable sense, wandering the corridors of the old school, that if you scratched away at the walls you’d find living history beneath. For locals, the Biennial has brought an old, abandoned building back to life: giving people an opportunity to return to the institutional and radical spaces of the Old Blind School where they once worked, campaigned, plotted, picketed and even performed.

As a life-long southerner and occasional Londoner, I didn’t expect to find I had any place within this architectonic narrative. Yet looking up from amongst Peter Wächtler’s ceramic sea creatures I discovered a mural. A mural which was not a part of the official Biennial programme but a piece of the fabric of the building itself, a fragment of the city’s past. Like the needle who stepped into the haystack to discover a lost connection with the social and political history of Liverpool, I found that I was a part of the crumbling walls and chipped paintwork after all. The mural was painted by a relative of mine in 1986.

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My great uncle Mick Jones, son of the Garston-born Trade Union Leader Jack Jones, was a political illustrator and mural painter most famous for his work on the Dalston Peace Mural designed by Ray Walker. The mural in the dome of the Old Blind School commemorates the Peoples’ March for Jobs in Liverpool: it curls over the mint green balcony of the top floor with the rage and passion of 1980s political activism. The colours are vibrant and in wild, striking contrast to the polite neo-classical detailing of the rest of the building.

Edward Rushton, one of Liverpool’s great radicals, is depicted as the blind hopelessly leading the blind. There are towers of smoke billowing behind him, and the cranes and hooks which swing in and out of the warped mural seem to threaten to demolish the world around them, including the crumbling red brickwork of the Albert Docks. Beneath this post-industrial apocalypse the people march with their bright, rippling protest banners.

Marx lurks somewhere amongst the crowds along with a self-portrait of the artist himself, and recent family debates have also concluded that the fiery red-head leading the protest must be my great aunt. That statuesque red-head raises her arm to unleash a cry, the slogan on her t-shirt screaming out: ‘Give us a Future!’ This cry ripples across the painted surface of the domed mural, and by a kind of magical coincidence I suspect: the sonics of protest, dissent and disenchantment, echo across the city and the Biennial’s many venues.

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Sound carries and it is the sounds of political and social unrest which offer one of the most interesting threads for navigating the haystack. Attune yourself to a sound-map of the Biennial and you’ll have found a satisfying way in.

For me, the best of the acoustic offerings was the exhibition devoted to Liverpool’s oral poet, musician and painter, Adrian Henri, at the Exhibition Research Centre. Here rare video and audio archive footage evoke the sounds of radical Liverpool in the 60s and 70s. Henri’s words come to us slowly across the music, at times coloured with romance and at others, barbed with politics. Listening to Henri’s experimental lyricism, the sounds of Liverpool and the chiming of the Liverpudlian accent, the Mersey Sound, become richly musical and even sensual. Henri was a wordsmith of great skill and craft. It’s when the Biennial taps into the Liverpudlian local and particular, when it picks up the melody of the city’s sounds and passes them back to the visitor: that the events reach rhapsodic peaks of brilliance. It’s then that they have our attention: that we’re all finally leaning to listen in.

I catch the beginning of a final parable as I’m leaving. I overhear two scousers swapping stories about going to Henri’s spoken word events in their own Mersey youth, their voices ricocheting against the looped recordings. There’s another two needles, entering the haystack.

So now the question is (or the moral of the parable): how can we preserve the mural? Rumour has it that the Hope Street Hotel has acquired the Old Blind School and plans to convert it into luxury apartments, but will there be space for the mural in this new development? If anyone has any interest in helping to preserve the mural, or any ideas of how to do so, please leave a comment below.

Liverpool Confidential believed the mural stole the show: http://www.liverpoolconfidential.co.uk/Culture/Arts/The-mural-that-steals-the-Biennial-show You an read more about the unique Liverpudlian history of the Blind Schools on the Biennial website where they have opened up a forum for swapping stories and memories: http://www.biennial.com/blog/2014/06/05/share-your-stories-an-iconic-building-brought-back-to-life Unite the Union has more detail about the historical figure of Edward Rushton and the history painted in the mural: http://www.unitetheunion.org/growing-our-union/education/rebelroad/murals/

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Last week I travelled up to Scotland to talk about a PhD in St Andrews, and to wander the streets of Edinburgh: falling more in love with the city than ever before. It was a week filled with incredible skies, architectural landscapes – both ruined and coal-charred – and the tumbling stone-masonry of hill-top kirkyards.

There is something of a rumour I have been clinging onto during the winter, a chinese whisper passed from a soluble sound-bite in the newspaper, read and reported by my mother, to me. The whisper said that some fortuitous alchemy, the mild winter combined with the mutable laws of astrology, had led to a period of particularly wondrous skies: shifting, transforming soft-vibrant dawns and sunsets which take my breath away. Despite its now untraceable nature, I believe it  with absolute conviction; I can’t remember a winter of such lullingly-beautiful skies.

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Sunsets bleed like flashing precious metals into the smallest slithers and exposed fractions of sky. Ruby red and amber jewelled-clouds make tracks against the celluloid blue, drifting behind the black frame of a winter tree’s scraggy branches. Mists rise up from the damp marshes, caught by the sunlight as if illumination gives levity, and then roll up and across the blue at impossible speed. The Harlow flood plains, fall below the Essex motorway, and mirror-ripple whipped clouds caught adrift in this suddenly vast, soft, brilliant sky. This winter I am obsessed with the sky.

In this sense Scotland didn’t fail me. It was gloomier and broodier, the sky there, framed by broom and gorse and the rising peaks of the land. The light seemed softer and weaker, but strangely immanent, and the clouds never succeeded in obstructing light, but simply diffused and fractured it. In St Andrews the day was spent under a weak, darkening and lightening blue, a dimness which filled me with joy instead of typically making me gloomy.

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Sunset in the depths of Edinburgh caught itself in the window panes of buildings – so tall they grow by distortion – and was framed always by an illusory perspective of the city streets (the pretence that the sea is not in fact, out there somewhere, that everything is far grander and more sprawling than it really is).  Edinburgh is the deep city, the city of vertical depths which confuse our sense of scale: cavernous archways and tunnels, infinite Scottish steps, a black tower of a monument, a castle sat atop a craggy peak.

Scotland was an adventure framed by perfect skies, more skies than I could ever or should ever try to describe. I’ll leave you with the perfect broodiness of the sky over the black rock of Arthur’s Seat…

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A week of architecture 041Last week I took my research to the faculty of Architecture and Design, Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Valparaiso. It felt wonderful to play at being a student in this environment: sunshine and clean white architecture, a combination of angles and curves arranged on a hilltop facing the sea. The white staircases spiralling up into the sky, a great pine tree shading the decking where students sat and ate their lunch. Around the corner from a glass-cased library, a temple-like workshop was filled with students building small constructions.

A week of architecture 037The faculty is located in the neighbourhood of Recreo, between ramshackle Valparaiso and luxurious Vina del Mar, and looks out to the sea from its seat in the hills. When I first arrived in Valparaiso some residents described the city of colourful houses as being like a cinema or a theatre; where the sea is a screen and all of the houses, seats, with a view of the spectacle. In this way the sea is both a gift (something which Pablo Neruda seemed to appreciate with a particular gluttony for soaring vistas) and something which poses a problem for the architect.

A week of architecture 042When I interviewed architect and co-founder of the Ciudad Abierta, David Jolly, he explained that in Ritoque they had kept their interiors enclosed and separate from the eternal presence of the sea. “If we want to see the sea we can go out there, we can walk on the beach, we can go for a run,” he said, describing how the Open City Group had gone against the elemental pull of the popular design tendency to worship the sea in order to keep interiors consistent as interiors.

A week of architecture 019Jolly explained the motivation as being a difference between daily life and leisure time, “when someone is on holidays they have a less complex life; you get up and see the sea, you read something. It’s relaxed. But when you are in full life you have a more complex relationship with the surroundings, so you don’t just see the sea as a screen.” But I can’t help feeling that if you surrender to the sea you open yourself to the possibility of infusing everyday life with the contented-feeling of perpetual holiday. As I sat working at a glass table with a view through the open window of the expansive Pacific Ocean I didn’t find this a distraction, but an invigoration of everything I was doing and everything I needed the motivation to do.

Tomorrow I’m going to make the journey north along the coast of Chile to Ciudad Abierta, in Ritoque. I’m going for lunch with the architects are a part of the Amereida Corporation, who live and work on the 275 hectares of coastal land found here between the sea and the forest, the wetlands and the dunes. I’ll be interviewing one of the architects about poetry and its relationship to architecture, for a specially themed issue of T-R-E-M-O-R-S Magazine on sound and architecture.

Vamos a la playa 182A few weeks ago I got the softest of glimpses of Ciudad Abierta in the bright dusted-yellow lights of early evening as I walked along the coastal highway. Despite the roar of the cars beside me, it was the fiercely elemental roar of the sea breaking into foam in the distance which left the greatest aural impression. Between the 275 hectares of the Open City Group and the sea stretches the wetlands and low-lying dunes, the train track dividing the transformations of the landscape from the beach. In this perfect light the rolling curves of the virgin dunes recalled some poetic act gifted to the land by the Amereida in the 70s: silhouettes traversing the tracked peaks. In this light, beyond the fences and electric gates, it looked like a veritable, unobtainable utopia.

Vamos a la playa 110I already have two recordings of the sea for my sound article; tne from the estranged stretch of perfect Vina del Mar sands, and the other from the powerful turbulence of the sea crashing against the rocks at Isla Negra. Tomorrow I hope to record a reading of one of the Amereida’s poems. The poems represent the inauguration of a new construction, and often decide the location and form of the design; an architectural philosophy founded on the poetic.

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