Democratic Promenade at the Bluecoat. 30 Sep – 27 Nov 2011 daily 10-18.00. Free admission.
40 artists engage with ideas around democracy and the radical in this timely exhibition at the Bluecoat.
Against a backdrop of Liverpool City of Radicals, the city’s thematic focus for 2011, this exhibition draws on cultural and political narratives from the past century to consider questions about how artists engage with the radical in their work.
Through artworks old and new, objects, reconstructions, photography, films and documentation, Democratic Promenade references various moments considered radical that relate to Liverpool and the wider political environment, and reflects artists’ ongoing relationship to ideas around democracy, collective action and individual expression.
Artistic Director at the Bluecoat and Democratic Promenade Curator Bryan Biggs said: “The stimulus for looking at radicalism now is that it is 100 years since several significant events took place in the city that had a profound impact – culturally, architecturally and politically: a Post-Impressionist exhibition at the Bluecoat, the opening of the controversial Liver Building, and a general transport strike. This combination of impulses and the changes they brought about, makes 1911 an appropriate reference point for an examination of the idea of the radical.”
The exhibition title is taken from Walter Dixon Scott’s description of the port’s landing stage in his 1907 book Liverpool. This ‘democratic promenade’ represented for him a coming together of business and pleasure, the city’s wealthy merchants mixing with its urban poor, Europeans heading to a new life across the seas, and sailors from around the globe dropping anchor on Merseyside.
A century later, with financial and social structures increasingly under duress in the old democracies, and calls for new freedoms in the Middle East and elsewhere, the very idea of democracy is subject to scrutiny.
Highlights of the exhibition include:
Brigitte Jurack, working with 15 other artists, evokes Liverpool sculptor Arthur Dooley’s ‘lost’ speakers’ podium at the Pier Head, an important site for rallies. Her installation – a large red banner above maquettes of proposals for new spaces for public protest – asks what a contemporary platform for collective dissent might be.
Pavel Büchler’s LIVE is the sound of live audiences collated from the artist’s record collection, echoes of appreciation from performances that, like the speakers’ podium, are absent.
Dave Sinclair’s photographs capture the 1985 Liverpool School Students’ Strike when thousands took over the city centre in a wild protest at incoming job creation schemes, regarded by many as ‘conscription’.
Former Liverpool Art Prize winner and Northern Art Prize nominee David Jacques’ new film commission, The Irlam House Bequest, narrated by poet Paul Farley, draws on a purported discovery of drawings for trade union banners and agit-prop posters in a disused Bootle tower block. Political threads and fictions are interrogated across time in the film, which is accompanied by a large drawing from Jacques’ banner work.
Rose Vickers’ paper cut-outs of aphorisms like ‘We make our own future’, with intricate backgrounds drawn from 19th century arts & crafts movement designs, evoke earlier utopianism, but reflect our present uncertainty about a better future.
Progressive artists group the Sandon Studios Society moved into the Bluecoat in 1907 and were instrumental in securing it as the UK’s first combined arts centre. Sandon members exhibiting here include Albert Lipczinski, Donald Lynch and Roderick Bisson – represented by rarely seen paintings reflecting his dialogue with European modernism in the 1930s/40s and early adoption of Surrealism.
Adrian Henri’s radicalism as poet, painter, performer, musician and critic is reflected in archival material showing how he dissolved distinctions between these disciplines, not least in his pioneering early 1960s performance work – the UK’s first ‘happenings’ – and taking on the persona of French writer Alfred Jarry’s monstrous creation Pere Ubu, the subject here of prints by Brian O’Toole and Graham Williams.
The way that public space is contested is explored in John Davies’ photographs of green parts of Liverpool that have been privatised, including the International Garden Festival site, ‘eaten into’ as part of the housing development deal on the site.
Pete Clarke’s mixed media painting, Poppies and Roses, from a series made in response to central government attacks on local democracy in the 1980s, explores contradictory ideas about political change through strikes and demonstrations or through democratic participation in elections.
Nina Edge’s participatory processional performance, Sold Down the River, documented here on video, expressed the sense of betrayal felt on Merseyside during the 1980s, whilst fabric works like the batik Bhopal concern the disaster at the Union Carbide India pesticide plant.
In the Bluecoat-commissioned, Acid Brass – represented here by prints and sound – Jeremy Deller brought together two ‘democratic’ musical forms with roots in working class DIY culture: brass bands and acid house, invigorating both in the process.
Oliver Walker’s Mr Democracy is a response to Britain being one of only three countries without a written constitution. Comprising 1,000 dolls imported from China, programmed to recite a constitution commissioned by the artist from law students there, the installation explores ideas around trade, democracy and globalisation.
A section of the exhibition focuses on crowds and collective action, with photographs providing historical context: the mass demonstration on St George’s Plateau in 1911, the Walker Art Gallery ‘invasion’ by unemployed demonstrators in 1921, and the Beatles at the Town Hall following their triumphant tour of the US in 1964.
A fictional crowd is assembled in Alan Dunn, Derek Horton, Michael Jenkins and Sam Meech’s A crowd of people stood and stared, a ‘remix’ of a 1997 installation at the Bluecoat that updated the Beatles’ iconic Sgt. Pepper’s record sleeve. The tableau of cut-out figures includes films relating to today’s visionaries and crowds.
Peter Walsh’s Demo, filmed at political demonstrations in London this spring, focuses on the technology recording the events, rather than on the demonstrators themselves, questioning the credibility and effectiveness of this type of protest.
Documentation of Visual Stress’ 1980s and 90s Urban Vimbuza ‘dance healing rituals’ in the public realm reveal how this Liverpool performance collective set out to exorcise the city’s slave trading past and the ‘mental slavery’ of consumerism.
A collection of ‘radical curiosities’ features ephemera from Liverpool’s hidden histories of subversion and oppositional culture, including: ‘Smash’ robots (from the much-loved instant mashed potato TV advert) made by workers on Ford Halewood’s production line; posters from the 1970 University of Liverpool student occupation when future news broadcaster Jon Snow was expelled; and a bronze statuette commemorating worker’s control of the Fisher Bendix factory in Kirkby.
And finally, visitors are invited to join The Nineteen Hundred and Eleven Party, set up by artists’ group Dorothy to celebrate Liverpool’s enduring desire for social justice and spirit of radicalism. This evolving artwork will create a social movement and ‘party manifesto’ shaped entirely through audience interaction using social media as well as the more traditional party political broadcast, banners, posters and badges available in the gallery (get involved at: www.nineteenhundredandelevenparty.org).
Image above: School Students Strike by Dave Sinclair
Exhibition talks and tours
Tue 4 October 6-7.30pmArtist’s talk: Oliver WalkerOliver Walker talks about his Mr Democracy installation in the exhibition.Free but ticketed
Sat 8 October 2-3.30pmExhibition Tour
Bryan Biggs, curator of Democratic Promenade, leads a tour of the exhibition.
Free, just turn up
Thurs 20 October 6-7.30pmArtists’ talk: Alan Dunn and Nina Edge
Two artists in the exhibition discuss responding to critical political and cultural moments in their work.
Free but ticketed
Weds 2 November 6-7.30pm
Artists’ talk: David Jacques and Brigitte Jurack
Two artists in the exhibition discuss their work and interests in history, time and imagined futures/pasts.
Free but ticketed
Weds 16 November 6-7.30pm
Artists’ talk: Pete Clarke and John Davies
Two artists in the exhibition discuss contested public and private space in the city in their work.
Free but ticketed
Thurs 6 October 6.30-8pm
Who Governs Merseyside?
25 years since the abolition of Merseyside County Council, who wields political power in the city region and how are they accountable? In the first part of this event, combining academic study, public enquiry and theatre, a panel of experts gives their opinions on who has power. Staged at the start of the Democratic Promenade exhibition, this is followed by Part 2 at the end of the show when power-holders, identified with the help of local people, are put under scrutiny. Organised in collaboration with the Democratic Audit at University of Liverpool.
12-16 OctoberChapter & Verse Literature Festival
The Bluecoat’s literature festival takes up a radical theme this year with a programme involving a range of writers, including Ed Vulliamy (The Toxic Elite), Alexandra Harris (Guardian first book prize for Romantic Moderns: English Writers, Artists and the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper), innovative poet Robert Sheppard
(Berlin Bursts), a celebration of Wirral-born writer Malcolm Lowry (Under the Volcano), and the Alliance of Radical Booksellers Symposium.