Review: Translating The Street – Alternator Studios & Oxton Road Shops

Translating the Street- Frank Cavanagh Shoe Repairs
Translating the Street- Frank Cavanagh Shoe Repairs

Translating The Street – Alternator Studios & Oxton Road Shops
Saturday 5 March 2016

Words by Patrick Kirk-Smith. Photographs by artinliverpool.

The three residencies on the other side of our murky river have finally come to a close, with sound work, film portraits and rehashes of hair product shots with willing locals. I’ve had an interest in this one from the off and immediately fell in love with the idea of translating a street with more visible histories dotted around it that almost anywhere else in Birkenhead. Whether we’re talking about cultural shifts, or monumental architectural ones, this project give us an entire history, translated by three artists with international reputations.

The end product is one that came without expectations for two reasons. Number one, this is first residency of the kind Alternator have staged. Number two, and my favourite reason by far, Oxton Road takes a great deal of translating, and when you put Haleh Jamali, Jeff Young and Harold Offeh in three of the most wonderfully independent shops in Merseyside, the results will be, by the very nature of the question, completely unpredictable.

Jamali’s film is of a conversation between her and the two shop owners from K&N Grocers who seem to have welcomed this project with open arms and open minds, offering insights into their honest opinions on British identity and the parallels and differences between borderlands in Britain and borderlands in Iran. How do people present themselves in different cultures, and can they be their honest selves when taken out of their comfort zone? The films put that question in the foreground, and appears to deliberately fail to answer them; leaving that task strictly with the viewer.

Jeff Young’s performance and audio work has grown from a dedicated and in depth research process, with Frank Cavanagh’s shop as the centre point for his explorations. In a story that tells tales of the Lusitania woven into thoughts on Charlie Chaplain. Frank seems to be a starting point for the ideas that take Jeff on a flash-back filled tour of Birkenhead centre’s peripheral landscapes. Stopping and starting as abruptly as the dual carriageway it looks to present. The decay of memory – in the vision Jeff throws up at least – is brought on by the development of this road, trapping the cobbler’s shop in a mere fragment of the road he remembers working on.

And Harold Offeh’s work is one of the most gloriously garish responses to identity you’ll ever see, but one that works brilliantly within its setting of All Nations Hair & Beauty, a hairdressers specialising in afro hair, filled to the brim with boxes of hair product that look like they’ve fallen straight out of the 1970s. The salon has a few different functions, some were apparent while I was there for the opening of this exhibition. It’s a space for conversation and slowing down. A space to be away from the centre just metres away. And Harold’s work allows the customers to take centre stage in their own images of beauty. Becoming the very fashion product that made them cut their hair in the first place.

If you missed the event there are some great photographs of the work on site, as well as a recording of Jeff Young’s work available online (the link is included at the end of this article).

The work that developed through the residency sits across the full ranges of a few spectrums. It wasn’t a residency with an intention, or a proposed outcome. What has happened is a true response to the shops in question, and to the people in them – both customers and staff – giving me, if nobody else, a new perspective in to how we perceive those transitional districts in towns and cities across England; spaces swallowed by the centre, and squashed by the suburbs, that have fascinating stories to tell.

Audio recording of Jeff Young’s work: https://soundcloud.com/martinheslop/a552-hex

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