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.
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.
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.
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.
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/