February 13, 2018

Irwell Sculpture Trail – 25 Years of Public Art (1)

This year is officially the 25th Anniversary of the Irwell Sculpture Trail  (IST). It’s a funny feeling realising that you have been working on something that long, provoking, inevitably, the urge to reminisce. As anyone who tried to study the Text Festival, before Susan Lord stepped in to establish the Text Archive, will know I am notoriously disinterested in past projects – as John Peel used to say: “The last song isn’t as interesting as the next song”.  Someone wanting to know about the IST can look at the website, visit the sculptures or, if studying public art, make an appointment to see the historical files. But there are very few people left who can tell the stories behind the IST and the artists, and actually only me left still able to recount the tales of the 40+ artworks plus supporting community projects, temporary works and exhibitions, and ultimately also the creation of the Bury Sculpture Centre in 2014. The first sculpture I curated was by an artist called Pauline Holmes who made a beautiful (no longer extant) work with logs in Rawtenstall and
the latest was Auke de Vries magnificent untitled sculpture at Burrs Country Park last year. The next (later this year) will be the memorial sculpture of Victoria Wood by Graham Ibbeson. So, this starts an occasional series of blogs recounting an anecdotal history of sculptures in the Irwell valley.
The first thing to say is that this 25th Anniversary isn’t commemoration of IST’s inauguration - I have actually been working on IST since 1993. I had just arrived at Rossendale Council as the new Tourism & Arts Officer, when the Councillor responsible for Tourism came into my office and told me that he wanted me to organise Sunday markets at newly opened Rawtenstall station to encourage visitors arriving on the East Lancs Steam Railway to get off the trains and spend money in the town. The idea of me organising Sunday markets was abysmal. So I had to think of something quick that would achieve the same result without me wanting to kill myself in the first month of the new job. At the time there was one sculpture on the roundabout beside the station, celebrating the town-twinning with Bocholt in Germany. A few days later while washing some dishes, it occurred to me that a small sculpture trail around the station could be used to guide visitors to point of interest in Rawtenstall. I started identifying sites for sculptures with John Elliman in the Planning dept and realised that almost by accident the locations were on the Irwell Valley Trail. So that’s how it started in Rossendale. A few months later I was shopping in Manchester and saw a street sign pointing to the Irwell River; blinkedly working in Rossendale I had only recognised the river there. Suddenly I realised that, as rivers do, it ran all the way down to Manchester. I wrote from Rossendale to Bury and Manchester with the proposal that they commission art on the path too and together we could create the longest public sculpture trail in Europe. I had no idea if that was true, but we’ve been saying it ever since!
In that period, I commissioned 3 or 4 artworks (some of which no longer exist) and Bury commission a couple. I moved to a job in Bury which coincided with the launch of the National Lottery. With that pot of money available, I coordinated the 3 local authorities plus then Lancashire County Council and a handful of Environmental agencies (most of which have been abolished now) to bid for my vision of an environmental art trail running 30 miles from Bacup at the source of the river to Salford Quays. This is why this year is the 25th anniversary – it commemorates the year we started commissioning in earnest with an operating budget of £4million (£2.1million from the Lottery). We didn’t bid for that much money originally – it was much less; but when the lottery assessor came, he said that I wasn’t asking for enough money to achieve the scale of vision I was describing. He didn’t have to submit his judgment straight away so he gave me 2 weeks to rewrite the bid. In that 2 weeks I wrote 26 new documents and the money flowed. I doubt you can do that in today’s bureaucracy –  Lottery funding was more wild west then!
The other interesting anecdote about the bid itself came, when one morning the Councillor mentioned above came to my office to congratulate me on the success of the bid. I pointed to the documents still laying on my desk, and told him I had not yet submitted it. But he told me that the Secretary of State for Heritage/Culture had announce on Radio 4 that the Irwell Sculpture Trail had been awarded the grant. It took a little time to work out what this was about. It came down to politics. I discovered that the Secretary of State, Virginia Bottomley MP was scheduled for an interview on Radio 4 during which it was obvious that she was going to have a hard time justifying the Lottery’s first major grant being £50million to ‘elitist’ Covent Garden Opera. Her bureaucrats were charged with finding something she could point to that was ‘up north’ and ‘for the people’. To the system’s shame, they had not funded anything of the kind, so her briefing had to talk about something that fitted the bill and gloss over that it hadn’t actually been approved yet.
Anyway, on Saturday 17 February, the Sculpture Centre hosts an IST retrospective celebration of the work of Brass Art (Chara Lewis, Kristin Mojsiewicz and Anneke Pettican). Brass Art have a long history of working with Bury Art Museum and did their IST From the Tower Falls the Shadow in 2002.
(More IST artist stories in the next blog)

June 25, 2017

The Next Text Festival

On a fairly regular basis I am asked when the next Text Festival will be. My reply is always that the Text happens when there is something for it to investigate. My answer over the last year has also pointed to a European funding bid which if it had been successful would have linked a festival in 2018 with developments in Finland , Italy and Srpska
So, we were waiting to hear the EU decision. There is still the possibility of funding but either way it feels about time to announce the Text Festival – maybe also triggered by the Random Archive

Generally, I subscribe to John Peel’s philosophy that the next song is more interesting that the last one.  So, researchers of the Text Festival have been frustrated over the years when trying to study its four manifestations by my mild disinterest in Text Festival nostalgia. Luckily, Susan Lord has over the last few years been working to establish the Text Archive and curated the current Random Archive working with the quite significant collection and memory-trail of the Festivals. Despite my penchant for new ideas, seeing the Text history (and its reinvigoration through someone else’s eyes) has been fascinating and reminiscent – there’d been things I’d forgotten.

Anyway, more importantly perhaps, the next Text Festival will be in 2019. No rush for submissions. Curatorially there needs to be some serious research and thinking. My initially thinking is that it needs to focus on the New. It’s time for it to reinvent and challenge itself. The conversations and thinking will begin to be tested at the closing Random Archive Symposium at Bury Art Museum on 12 August.

March 01, 2017


There's been a spate of museum ‘what-to-do-about-Brexit’ conferences/briefings since the EU referendum - a symptom of the uncertainty which museums (and everyone else) faces at this time. A fundamental problem for museums is that one of the founding values of their purpose, liberal progress, faces its darkest threat since WW2. As custodians of history, Museums (should) recognise more than most that we have been here before - rising hate crime, xenophobia, populist nationalism/fascism, and now Trump in the White House adding gangster capitalism and climate change denial. Chinese military officials openly operate on the assumption of the 'practical reality' of Sino-US war and, even since I started writing this, Putin has told the Russian air force to prepare for war. We now know what it felt like in Germany in 1933. The barbarians are at the gate and this time we have no excuse for ignorance – we have the lessons of history.

So what will the museums do? There’ll be rhetoric of more cultural democracy, participation, increased access etc. Museums have been educating and engaging with their communities for decades.... but their communities still voted to leave the EU. In the same way, Bury Art Museum has presented its audience with an internationalist programme for more than 15 years; its cultural aspiration being that Bury people shouldn’t need to go to Berlin or Basel to see the best international contemporary art, people in Berlin or Basel should have to come to Bury. But Bury was also one of the towns in which the majority voted for Brexit. 

So what should museums do? Cultural professionals often claim that it is a function of culture to challenge. In truth, I can think of very few museums that ever really challenge. How often have you left a gallery feeling challenged? And now culture faces an existential challenge and it cannot fail to meet it. The assault on humanity, decency, truth, even life on earth has been bewildering fast and, taken aback, the response of civilised society has been slow and confused.

The International Committee for Museums (ICOM) has a conference called 'Exhibitions Without Borders' this summer in Puerto Rico - a dependant US territory and therefore subject to Trump's proposed ban on Muslims entering the country. I asked ICOM what their position was going to be on this as clearly the exclusion of Muslim museums would be an anathema to the values of the organisation. ICOM and US-ICOM have announced that the ban is contrary to the values of museums, but is that enough? The US courts have knocked back the Trump ban but this is no time for complacency, the Regime are coming back with more bile. Maybe resistance is mobilising in the American Museums – I know that MOMA responded by showing artists from the banned countries and the Davis Museum  in Massachusetts removed artworks by immigrant artists leaving empty walls. So what can museums do? ('Community engagement', 'cultural democracy' blah, blah, have their place, but don't face the crisis head-on). 

Bury Art Museum and Sculpture Centre already has an international programme; and in terms of challenging, it is currently showing Riiko Sakkinen's critically sharp 'ABC of Capitalism',  Juntae Teejay Hwang uncompromising ‘Angry Hotel Propaganda’ (left) and Jez Dolan’s queer ‘Diary Drawings’ and 60/50. But Brexit, Trump and rising racism require a specific response. So this summer I’ll be curating an exhibition called ‘Foreigners’.

This won't be a show about immigration or refugees; it won't even be a show about foreignness. It won’t romanticise the Foreign as Other. We are being told to fear foreigners, to hate them, to blame them for any and every problem we face. The Foreigners exhibition will be a cultural action that defies fear with hope.
It is my belief that Museums should do more than collect/preserve history, they are part of the process of making it; the narratives we lay down now form our future past. This is a dark moment in history, the future of humanity and truth is at stake: Museums have to be on the right side of History.

We are accepting submissions from artists to be in the show at artgallery@bury.gov.uk

February 18, 2017

Listen Backwards to Advance

Today Helmut Lemke launched Listen Backwards to Advance (LBtA) in Bury. For the whole of 2017 he will work from the starting point of an archive of all his previous work to move his practice forward. He has moved everything that has anything to do with his artistic activities into the basement of the Fusilier Museum, opposite the Bury Art Museum – a process of creating a public archive, investigating a 40 year career in sound art as a durational public performance. It examines a European sound art practice through rigorous investigations of past work. This project unpacks one person’s creative practice and collaborations across Europe.

LBtA will be performed in two stages – a research and development stage from Jan to June and a second stage where he will follow questions that have been identified in the R&D stage.
The R&D and critical investigation will be public for 5.5 months in Bury Art Museum (Jan-17 - June-17) investigating and questioning issues that have determined and driven his practice.
As a performative event and ongoing exhibition he will create a publicly accessible Archive (1977-2017): Objects, Photos, Videos, Sound Recordings, Writing, Publications, Drawings, Sound Machines.
He will:
  • ·      Hold a series of PUBLIC consultations and round table discussion to focus on elements of practice,
  • ·      Catalogue previous work and documentation,
  • ·      Reconstruct installations as temporary experiences,
  • ·      Perform extracts of work,
  • ·      Invite experienced practitioners and thinkers (1 individual and 1 panel per month) to:
  • ·      exchange knowledge and experience
  • ·      define relevant historic steps and developments in sound art
  • ·      extrapolate and critique significant chapters of his artistic journey.

 I wrote the following essay for Helmut Lemke’s installation during the 2013 Venice Biennale, and thought now is a good time to repost it (with a slight edit) to explain the important of his researches in Bury in the coming year:

Since the 1970's Helmut Lemke has developed site-specific concerts, performances and installations. His endeavours have taken him to concert halls and outdoor markets, to Galleries and Museums and to the frozen seas off Greenland, to Function Rooms of Pubs and to International Festivals. He has presented his work all over the globe, collaborating with other Sound Artists and Musicians, with Dancers and Scientists, Visual Artists and Architects, Poets and Archaeologists, Performance Artists and Wildlife Rangers. He has experienced many audible sounds as well as those made audible through creative interventions, and fundamentally come to understand the site the sound requires.
Through these investigations into sounds, some obvious, some familiar, some to be found, he has become a Cageian presence, not in the sense of musical or poetic lineage but as the value proposition conduit for a contemporary insight into sound itself. Lemke has observed that sound is behind you when you gaze toward the horizon: he places us in that moment, and constructs for us the awe of our relationship between the sound he unveils and the phenomenology of presence in that environment. This pursuit and representation of the fundamentals of sound is driven by his conception “über den hörwert”, a Marxian analog of the surplus value of hearing. His aim to represent a specific environment through its sounds at a specific moment requires listening with all senses. Accepting the impossibility of resonating the actual sounds heard in the moment he heard them, he constructs a conceptual aural present. Lemke talks about the tools he uses to communicate sounds heard to non-witnesses of the original, the remarkable articulation of his line, - raw and skeletal - poetry, visual poetry, onomatopoeia, soundpainting, photography and sound recordings, uncovering the democracy of microphones. He states his attempt to describe, to reproduce the experience of sound itself, its thickness, the ontology of being in sound, but this is not accurate: in fact, he becomes the act of hearing. In the offering of his approximations, objective and subjective improvisations, Lemke evokes memories of sound, and more, posits the second hearing, ours, in a new existential space, as a synesthetic osmosis. His quiet declaration of inwardness tunnels us into him and our ears are replaced by his. To know of the source of a sound helps to imagine it. Lemke is the source of the sound because whether or not his listeners really hear what he has drawn, written and document, verification lays in his trust in the audience’s willingness and capacity to absorb the inspiration and imagination of being. Reflecting declarations of purpose from Lawrence Weiner, William Carlos Williams et al., Helmut Lemke makes art useful to us, we can cross the bridges he has made for us.

Lemke has made himself the disembodied microphone, the universal hearer/ signifier of the sounds in the forest that no-one is there to hear, the teacher, the artist, the beekeeper. 

January 24, 2017

Museums, Innovation and Entrepeneurship: Forthcoming Talks

A busy few weeks of presentations about museums, international working and entrepreneurship (links included below).

Date: 26-28 January
Location: the Santa Maria della Scala Museum Complex, Siena, Italy
Quite excited about this conference as it frames the discussion in the relation of the future of culture, and unusually locates museums in the dialogue with music and cities.  The title of my paper is ‘How Not To Be National’ in which I’ll be talking about how it is possible to develop an international practice by ignoring your regional or national cultural institutional structures and going straight to global projects and collaboration. In my session I share the platform with Raquel Mesa from Action Cultural in Spain and N2U Art Group Paris.

Date: 2 February
Location:  Birmingham University.
I often hear myself referred to as entrepreneurial, and though never correct it, don’t believe it is a good description at all. So I’ll be talking at the Cultural Heritage Workshop about Entrepreneurship. Really the key to entrepreneurship is not pursuit of making money at all; it's new thinking that matters – Asking yourself fundamental questions about how your practice works and how to trade on your uniqueness.

Catalyst Conference (part of Spectra Festival)
Location: Aberdeen
Date: 9-12 February

This one will be a version of the Siena presentation, applying the experience of Bury to the opportunities for Aberdeen. I’m speaking on Friday 10 Feb. Sharing a platform with Chris Carney of Threshold Festival of Music & Arts, Stefán Magnússon, is the Artistic Director of Eistnaflug festival, in Iceland, and Angela Michael, Festivals and Cultural Director at VisitAberdeenshire.

In case anyone is trying to keep track, my recent presentations have involved me speaking at Museum2015 Tokyo, European Network of Cultural Centres 2015 (hosted in Bury), Museum Cluster & Cultural Landscape, Taiwan Museums Association 2016, UK Trade Mission to Seoul 2016, International Touring in Banja Luka, 2016, Chinese Museums Expo 2016 – and various UK events which I haven’t time to list.

January 18, 2017

Inauguration of Donald Trump: Sequester the Bile

Sequester the Bile

Will this be filmed? Will I ever been seen again?
Déjà vu to pre-empt the desire to say:
this is me and that is them - as emphatic modifiers
If the signature is left as an empty list
A loser’s garden for a nobody,
nobodies, useless eaters as a forgetful functor:
their intropunitive ignorance of a soliton that goes ahead of us
Austere defenders of the right to pay towards the certificate
with or without fear.

Now conditionally bijective to now
A catalogue of comparatives and superlatives been here before
those heroes, holders or changes to the governance pathway;
recursive choice mildnesses
the indecisive
bring me the head of stupid
enjoy your day of barely disguised resentment, whispered irritation
catalogue systems of libraries, ideas cosy, mediocrity built after
trees all the same height are the same age
in estates of easily constructed isotropic housing

Apologies (labelled transitions between states)
when to compromise only generates compromise –
the axiom of determinacy
not the axiom of choice
standing despite all possibilities to fall
We are not going out onto that jetty,
it's dangerous and no one will thank us.
In the same way valleys are better than mountains
barbarous dissolution
its budget for the new management
You are pathetic and will get what you deserve

Architects of the future:
The tyranny of cardinal geometry, stars and grids with sightlines
our breath will create weather OUR BREATH WILL CREATE WEATHER
truly monumental … far exceeding all expectations for our 1000
our arch will be bigger than your arch OUR ARCH WILL BE BIGGER
                                                                           THAN YOUR ARCH
the wall detail of cracks and crevices, beautiful colours, fronds and teeny weeny microphylls
the worst thing that could happen
this absolute future looks bleak for vertebrates

December 27, 2016

Sequester the Bile

Combined with the Brexit vote disaster, Donald Trump winning the American election makes it clear that we have arrived at an historic moment when the idea of Progress itself is being turned back, when truth no longer matters, when the existence of humanity itself faces the abyss (Fascism, climate change, nuclear war, you know the list). As you know, I am dismissive of the portentous claims of Poetry, but there is a certain attraction to the Romantic image of the heroic poet standing against the apocalyptic storm to bellow ‘fuck off’ to the Darkness (I paraphrase obviously). In that shocking Trump week, I was reading a medical thing that talked about a process called sequestering bile. This seems obviously a metaphor for the requirement of this moment. It occurred to me that if poets were going to mean anything there had to be a global chorus that sequestered the bile of Trump etc on the 20th January coincident with the Inauguration Ceremony. Poets would raise poetry to the status they historically claim with poems sequestering the bile; #SequestertheBile could trend alongside/surpassed the Inauguration hashtag. Anyway It’s there as an idea.

So in addition to the ‘Place’ collaboration with Jayne Dyer, I began writing ‘Sequester the Bile’ with the intention of publishing it on 20th Jan.

A little after I started, I was approached by Tom Jenks and Steven Fowler to see if I would do something as part of the Enemies Project, a collaborative performance on 14 January at the Burgess Foundation in Manchester - http://www.theenemiesproject.com/northwest  The obvious collaborator for me on this is Helmut Lemke .

Having only just come out of poetry retirement, I am tempted to joke the Godfather3 line “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in” or more recently from John Wick “You dip so much as a pinkie back into this pond, you may well find something reaches out and drags you back into its depths.” … on this occasion the something was the Enemies Project.
Anyway, the poem-writing has started. At the moment I am investigating two motifs: the Nazi policy of killing ‘Useless Eaters’ and the megalomaniac architectural dreams of the 1000 year Reich, specifically the proposals to build a triumphal arch in Berlin under which the Arc de Triomphe could fit and the Volkshalle Dome which would have been so huge that the breathing of the crowds it could hold would have created weather.  The useless eaters language resonates with the murderous Tory welfare policy which except for the absence of lethal injection is evil in plain view: google death rates from the ‘Fitness to Work’ test and compare with Nazi Aktion 14f13 criteria for murder.
And the grotesque gigantism of Volkshalle starts with a gold elevator.

As I say above I am under no illusion that poetry offers real resistance to the evil we face, but as I recently blogged about Paul Hindmith’s Mathis der Maher, the artist’s responsibility at times like these is to make art that contributes to the resistance. To belt and brace it though, I am actively working in the real world too.