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Review: The Royal Standard & Northern Lights: Liverpool’s newest creative destination

The Royal Standard & Northern Lights: Liverpool’s newest creative destination

Words, Patrick Kirk-Smith

Cains Brewery Village might be a fancy thing to call old storage sheds, but Northern Lights, the latest in a new wave of creative spaces in Liverpool, is putting its stamp on this new address. The complex opened last week, boasting a bar & grill, coffee shop, digital print facilities, publications and a vast amount of studio spaces.

This isn’t an excuse, or an attempt to wriggle out of research, but I honestly can’t find a proper number on how many galleries & project spaces there are in the new Northern Lights creative village. In no way does that mean there aren’t many, just on opening night there were at least seven individual shows to explore, with open studios and presentation spaces dotted around, but scattered around that are the main players, who have yet to show what they can do in their new home.

The Royal Standard, arguably Liverpool’s most reputable studio, have yet to show off their gallery space, but instead chose to flaunt their studio spaces, already packed full of energetic artists, hoping to follow in the footsteps of those who founded TRS in the old location in Vauxhall. And Cactus, one of TRS’s longest running spaces, and an influential gallery in its own right these days.

  • What did they achieve in Vauxhall?

Well first off, it’s not their first move. In 2006 TRS was a group of artists in an old pub in Toxteth. It wasn’t until 2008 when they moved to Vauxhall. Since 2008 they’ve been closely tangled up in Liverpool Biennial, with 2012 gaining a huge amount of public recognition for their work.

Since then, they have supported artists non-stop in their studios, and developed intriguing project spaces. The best known of these is Cactus. Cactus gallery’s director, Joe Fletcher Orr, curated 2016’s Associate Artists exhibition for the Biennial, and now has work included in the Arts Council Collection.

Other artists and directors have done incredible things from the old walls too. Laura Robertson, a former director now leads Double Negative, one of the best online platforms for critical writing in the country, and worked closely with the Biennial last year to deliver the first Biennial Fringe.

Including, Northern Art Prize nominee, Emily Speed there are too many accomplished artists who have been part of this movement to list. What’s important now, is how the influential artists of the future can be nurtured here.

  • Who are the artists leading this new Royal Standard forward?

TRS has historically been run by a relatively large team of directors, rather than individuals. It gives it a kind of voice and direction that no other independent studio has. Currently that team is larger than ever, with seven directors, all of different disciplines. But how is that working in this time of change?

Emma Curd, Practicing artist & PhD student at LJMU +
Gegory Hebert, busily practicing artist +
Ashleigh Owen, writer & (self-professed) super lazy artist +
Maggie Matic, practising artist, feminist activist & PhD student +
Joseph Cotgrave, busily practising artist +
Becky Peach, artist, freelance arts facilitator, print & engagement assistant at Bluecoat.

Nothing else needs saying. From practicing artists, to designers, people in love with type and print, artists engaging with academia and facilitators throwing themselves into the heart of some of the city’s biggest galleries. That’s how it’s working through this change. It’s developing to accommodate artists with a set of disciplines even more diverse than theirs.

  • Now, possibly the most contentious question, and the one still weighing on my mind is ‘Where do I draw the line between TRS & Northern Lights?’

Just like TRS’s directors, this is just as hard to define, and just as simple. Northern Lights is a sum of its parts. It is important not to simply talk about this space at TRS though, as it’s more than that now. As well as TRS, Hub Studios have moved from their old home at Elevator Studios with some of Liverpool’s most iconic artists working away in their corner of the building.

TRS are also facilitating a large gallery space in an empty warehouse space, which on launch night was showing an incredibly ambitious exhibition from LJMU third year students seeking to prove what they can do when given free reign. Go cre8 take up a huge space with their commercial printers next to the epicentre of the space, quick off the mark to take advantage of the captive customers in the studios. And Xiringuito, a movable restaurant, is a celebratory centrepiece which make this new complex a viable destination.

It’s the galleries and project spaces within TRS that blur the lines though, with Vs and The Trophy Room as new additions to the studio. Vs, run by recent LJMU graduates, are currently occupying the 1.11 residency space; a project hosted at TRS in their least location, in partnership with LJMU, which has previous been home to Muesli and 6 Gins. The Trophy Room, run by Alexander J. Croft, gives opportunities to recent graduates and young artists looking to try new ideas in a full exhibition.

TRS is an artist led studio and workshop, Northern Lights is a community. They only work with each other, so if you’re still confused as to which is which this time next year, that’s probably a good thing, because it means the development has worked.

There is no doubt the Baltic was ready for it. The Baltic Triangle, the epicentre of Liverpool’s creative arts, has seen the launch of coffee shops, bars, restaurants, and studios over recent years. Complaints of gentrification were inevitable, and partially inarguable, and not helped by some of the founding galleries focussing on their bars and eateries above the needs of their artist residents. What Northern Lights does is bring that creativity back.

By opening with a print shop and a permanent bar & grill on site, they’re making their creative model one that can last. With a pensive eye on the North Docks going forward as a new creative centre, this move could be what keeps the Baltic Triangle relevant. More importantly though, this move from TRS to Northern Lights creates an incredible conversation from either side of the city centre.

A conversation between Northern Lights in L8, and the new Make Liverpool and Invisible Wind Factory in L3. No one knows what that conversation will look like, but provided it exists it could be start the groundwork for a much less confined creative Liverpool; one that travels visibly through the city centre.

So while Northern Lights was the centre of attention last week, and opened to a wildly busy launch night, it’s got a subtly implied promise that has sparked some seriously exciting possibilities. With all that speculation pushed to one side though, what’s certain is that this is one building that is going to be contributing massively to Liverpool’s arts; sometimes loudly, sometimes quietly.

We’re looking forward to the loud bits.

Find out how you can support The Royal Standard and Northern Lights here