Words by Patrick Kirk-Smith. Photographs by artinliverpool and courtesy of Alternator Studios
It’s a rare opportunity to be able to engage with an entire collective for one dedicated interview. An opportunity I couldn’t help jumping at full throttle this week, with Alternator Studio’s Translating the Street, including two of their commissioned artists, Haleh Jamali, Jeff Young.
Alternator Studio’s Translating the Street project is difficult to define. It spans themes of identity – both personal and cultural – community engagement and social responsibilities, as well as documenting and sharing histories and ideas. There are a lot of ands in that sentence, but they seem very necessary in describing this project. It is a project about sharing more than anything else, and about how we create and preserve communities.
The project is curated by Alternator’s Brigitte Jurack with excellent support from Wendy Williams, Carol Ramsay and Julie Dodd. All studio artists at Alternator on a permanent basis, and all equally passionate about this initiative for different reasons. For Williams and Dodd this has been an eye opener, introducing them to places they’ve long overlooked.
The project seems to focus on story-telling to an extent, and has chosen some fantastic artists to work with towards that end. Haleh Jamali, the visualiser, Jeff Young, the story teller, and Harold Offeh, the jester. Even down to the order these artists have been timetabled to, this project lives and breathes the structures of narrative. It is becoming an exciting document, and an engaging story, spanning several sites, tied by one situation. The artists will be spending a week in residence, and primarily in discussion, with some further time spent documenting and shaping their stories, developing ideas and creating work inspired by their time.
The interview that follows is a slightly disjointed but very enthusiastic one. It seeks to further explore the relationship between the artists and curators of this project, and present how they understand their individual reactions to the shops and retailers they’ve chosen to work with. It doesn’t follow our standard interview format, but delivers a rare view into the inner workings of a very insightful project indeed.
ArtinLiverpool: How’s it been, working with such a varied set of vivid stories? It seems like there’s a huge amount of narrative play in this project, and an incredibly natural flow to how it’s been working so far, leading one to the next etc. Has it affected the story, or had an impact on how the story arrives?
Wendy Williams: That’s quite a difficult question for us all to answer I suppose as not everyone has been directly involved at this early stage.
Haleh stayed with me during her residency, so I was lucky in that sense, in that we were able to chat about her experiences, in the evenings.
To be honest, until the residencies started, I didn’t know anything about K & N grocers (who now have a Facebook page by the way – thanks to Haleh!) I’d walked past a couple of times and had bought some fruit from them, but that’s all.
Same goes for the Cobblers… because of this project, I made an effort to go in to chat to Frank and ask for help making a pair of shoes for an installation. I learnt more about him from a ten minute conversation with Jeff though than I ever would just visiting the shop. I suppose that goes for the other businesses involved with the project (for me). I work full time so my free time is very precious to me. I tend to go to the studio on my days off and then generally go straight back home again. I had no reason to interact with them at all.
For me then, to find out about the private lives of the two stores has been quite a revelation and really made me think about how little I’d been involved with the local community.
Julie Dodd: I haven’t really had much involvement so far, but when we all met up a few weeks ago I was intrigued by the stories being told. The feeling of community spirit that has really been lost in most places remains and through the stories. I imagined how it felt years ago when people only really shopped locally and all knew each other. My grandma used to tell me stories of war time and that evening took me back to the times I sat listening to her.
Like Wendy I am always rushing around, between working full time, family commitments and my own practice, so I rarely walk down the roads around the studio and haven’t ventured into many. My eyes have been opened and when I have a little time I am tempted to now.
Haleh Jamali: My first week at Translating the Street residency was such a great opportunity for me to devote my time exclusively to developing a new project. It was also an amazing cultural experience to be near Liverpool in a very multicultural part of Oxton Road having the opportunity that Alternator studio gave me to be away from everyday routine, allowing for ample time for inspiration and contemplation.
During my stay at K & N grocers I was looking at how the mundane tasks of daily life can be seen as significant. I lived the life of two grocers for a week. Through their tales, I’ve spent my time getting to know them, their customers and mostly, the multicultural neighbourhood. In some of the video I’ve taken I’ve asked muffled questions but the two grocers didn’t need much prompting. They’ve got a lot to talk about.
In my work, I tend to use narrative to engage with the viewers and provide an opportunity for them to go beyond what seems obvious, and create their own narrative. I guess in my current work, their stories will be interweaved in my video but still it’s work in progress and things can change.
Jeff Young: So I began to focus on Borough Road itself and I spent a lot of time in the magnificent library reading about the history of the road. Still, everything is provisional but the discovery that this place used to be called Happy Valley and that there was a pub with the same name, where Frank used to drink, and that there was a stream called the Rubicon running through the valley, and the realisation that Wilfred Owen lived just around the corner, and that there were anti-German riots on Oxton Road during World War 2…and so on…things like this started to shape a sense of lost history, of stories buried beneath the tarmac of a dual carriageway. On subsequent visits to Frank’s shop he began to open up about the long life he has led, just about all of it in Birkenhead. There were cinemas and music halls here, and pubs and life. So I begin to think that the story I will tell is about a once vibrant place – which still has pockets of vibrancy of course – but a place that has been badly served by so called progress.
ArtinLiverpool: Was there something that brought you to that particular spot in Birkenhead? Did the interaction with the community always exist?
Haleh Jamali: I guess in my case Alternator Studio initiated this. I’ve never been to Birkenhead prior to the residency so for me it was a whole new experience. I’ve had a walk with one of the grocers in the area and he was telling me how the area has changed in the last eight years, since he has opened the shop. Kazem talked about how they are witnessing the life of their customers. I think K&N grocers is a very different shop, compared to all other the shops in the area. As Brigitte pointed out before, they bring life to Oxton Road with the way they arranged their fruits and vegetables in, or outside the shop. Very colourful indeed. And playing classical music in the shop is not something you hear in a grocery shop all the time. Both of the grocers are very chatty. They could just greet people and give them the service they required but instead they like to interact with them and chat about different things. People tend to stay longer in their shop just to chat and eat roasted chestnuts, which is their new addition to the shop!
ArtinLiverpool: A question mainly for Haleh: As I understand it, you were the first off the mark (correct me if I’m wrong), how was it leading the way?
Haleh Jamali: Leading the way! I think Jeff had his initial meeting with the cobbler before me! It was great to meet Jeff and hearing about his experiences and ideas. Had a brief opportunity to talk about our work and exchange ideas. I am hoping to hear more about Jeff and Harold’s progress as we go along.
I’ve felt very welcomed from the beginning and they were very enthusiastic about the project and that continued to the last day I was there. Their regular consumers got used to me being there and filming but still very aware of the camera.
ArtinLiverpool: A question mainly for Jeff: What’s the process been like with the cobbler? And how’s it been following on from Haleh with such a quick turn around?
Jeff Young: For me it’s all been tentative and provisional so far. Frank Cavanagh is a cobbler who has been working his trade since the age of 14. He is now 86 so has been a cobbler for 72 years. In that time he has seen Birkenhead change beyond belief, to the extent that he is now – way past retirement age – one of the last surviving businesses on Borough Road. Most of the shops are boarded up or derelict. The ruthless dual carriageway that now cuts through Birkenhead and separates Frank’s shop from the rest of the town has had a detrimental effect on the area.
On my first visit to Frank I took a pair of boots for him to repair and the tentative questions I asked him were received with caution. I had to work out a way of engaging with Frank and his shop. The shop has the feel of a business at the end of its working life and it’s run by a man who has worked over 20 years beyond retirement age. I found it difficult, and I felt intrusive so I spent a lot of time walking around the area, trying to get a feel for the geography and the mood of the place. My lasting impression was that the Borough Road dual carriageway is a terrible insult to the town, to the man.
ArtinLiverpool: And a question to all as individuals, but also, if you had to come together to decide: What’s been the absolute highlight so far?
Haleh Jamali: I think the highlight has been meeting the two great grocers. I’ve felt like I’ve known them for a long time. Kazem Kohnechi is very interested in Persian poetry. He made lots of references to ancient Persian poems, which I found fascinating. Karim Azare is a great story teller. He told me lots of fascinating stories about his childhood in a large family.
I am still working on my materials so I think it’s a bit early to say what will be the final work.
Jeff Young: The day I met Haleh was important because I went to the fruit and veg shop to find her and she was there, almost as if she worked there. There were chestnuts roasting in a huge metal pot and there was cous cous and tomato sauce being cooked in a steamer. The people who worked in the shop had welcomed Haleh into their day to day routine and it felt like a potent place in a community that hasn’t been particularly well cared for. I’d come from a long session with Frank, so many stories and anecdotes about his life. He had repaired my boots beautifully and I have another pair to take there next time I visit. The highlight has been the laughter. And once, not far from here there were evenings were Harry Lauder, Charlie Chaplin, Vesta Tilley, Morecambe and Wise performed in the Birkenhead theatres, and people strolled along the banks of the Rubicon in Happy Valley where there is now a six lane highway, slicing Birkenhead in two. I still don’t know quite what I will make of this. There is more to come, more walks to make in the New Year, but it will be something to do with boots, and walking and an 86 year old, resilient man, the last cobbler of his kind.
Wendy Williams: I think the highlight for me was when we took Ian and Minako down to K & N to meet Haleh. All chatting together, I suddenly thought ‘This is really working – it’s not only strengthening the arts in Wirral, but it’s really bringing the community together.’
It’s a fantastic stepping stone to the next stage of our residency programme.
Interview with thanks to:
Alternator Studios: @AltStudio2
Brigitte Jurack: http://brigittejurack.de
Wendy Williams: http://wendycwilliamsdotorg.com/
Julie Dodd: http://juliekdodd.moonfruit.com/
Carol Ramsay: https://www.facebook.com/cazramsay/
Haleh Jamali: http://www.haleh-jamali.co.uk/
Jeff Young: https://jeffyoung26.wordpress.com/
Harold Offeh: http://haroldoffeh.com/