Saturday, 27 February 2016

The Whitworth Gallery, Manchester: opening up landscapes; from factories and film to far away places

Art has the power to unlock new experiences; and that is certainly celebrated in a number of installations in the Whitworth Art Gallery right now. Some of the most recent include work by  Ben Rivers and Nico Vascellari, opening up film as a way of engaging with landscape artistically… and to the extreme. Then there’s a collection of textiles designed by Tibor Reich – highlighting that even factories and industry can create impressive art. Be prepared to get inside wooden film sets and to wander through enchanted forests thick with mysterious music…

 Given that the Manchester Film Festival is due to start in March, the art at the Whitworth Gallery could be seen as especially relevant, right now. The visuals of video combine with ambitious exhibitions – as this is work which really gets the audience involved directly, through a range of film content.

 Take artist and filmmaker Ben Rivers’ latest project, ‘The Two Eyes Are Not Brothers’, which went on display at the Whitworth on the 25th February.  Within this, part of the gallery has literally been ‘taken over’ by unique viewing spaces Rivers has created for audiences to watch a series of short films.  From the outside they are sight to behold, ramshackle wooden pods built from old film set material, gathered to forge a new way we appreciate place and space. Whilst they may seem alienating on the outside, a wander within provides the intimacy of a film series; putting together a raw short story of a man travelling through the Moroccan desert. Sit in one pod and watch a man almost dancing in the sand, go and sit in another and see scenes suggesting conflict. It is an unnerving experience which puts us face-to-face with another culture.  Rivers’ art could be seen as that of playing with the line between fiction and reality, film and footage - and it turns part of the main Whitworth Gallery from viewing space into enchanted place.

Also opening on the 25th February was Nico Vascellari’s exhibition in the appropriately titled ‘landscape gallery’. The setting seems ideally dramatic – as to enter it you first walk past the full-length windows looking out onto Manchester’s own  Whitworth Park and gardens, before immersing yourself in a whole different side of nature altogether: Bus de la Lum. Here the artist has recreated the 'hole of light', the term often-used to describe an area of woodland on the Cansiglio Plateau, near the Northern Italian Prealps. Yet  this interactive exhibition seems to showcase the 'Jekyll and Hyde' of scenery: there is another side to this forest scene. Why?  Vascellari has also turned gallery into a gateway, or, more specifically, Darvaza (aka ‘Door to Hell'); a notorious cratered area in the Turkmenistan Desert. He links the two settings through the recorded soundscape - as these are both places crossed by culture and crossed by war; something the viewer grows to realise through walking round and feeling immersed.

 Allowing audiences to go from one culture to be immersed in another takes real skill – something Vascellari manages through linking standing installations of  patterned panels, glowing light and room to walk round and observe. The added layer of a soundtrack created collaboratively with Ghédalia Tazartèsln, a Turkish-born musician, contributes to the flair of the work.

Both the February features show how Manchester and the Whitworth are at the forefront of the modern artistic experience – changing not  just the content of art, but the character of gallery spaces themselves. In this light, the Whitworth’s many years of refurbishment appears well-considered; as this is artwork which celebrates the ability to change place, not just a different artistic phase or ‘face’. Another example of the gallery embracing changing places, is the ‘place’ of textiles in this city over time. Manchester is a city famed for its connections to textiles from the industrial revolution, yet it is Tibor Reich’s recent exhibition in the Whitworth which shows how Manchester is home to modernity in this material too. Reich was responsible for introducing interest and intensity to post-war textiles; with some beautiful colours and patterns covering the upstairs gallery.  Although Reich was born in Hungary and worked largely in London,  that his centenary exhibition is being held in Manchester shows that this is a place recognised for being at the cutting-edge of creativity. There are paintings, ceramics, photography and sketches too – so do get down to the Whitworth when you can! 

Thursday, 18 February 2016

The cabinet office pays for calf skin, whilst council cuts continue

No, Mr Reees Mogg, what tells us 'our laws are serious', is when they actively consider the people, rather than the parchment they are written on 

So we live under a political establishment which will pay for calf skin over local councils? This comes in light of recent news which has drawn attention to MPs efforts to save the centuries-old practice of printing Britain’s laws on vellum – usually goat or calf skin – with the cabinet office even offering to foot the £80,000 additional cost[1]. Tradition rather than transformation seems to be the sad state of much of Britain's politics. The events seem to confirm this is the case, as David Cameron praised the preservation of parliament writing laws on vellum – which had been due to end in April -  as playing an ‘important part’ in the House of  Commons and that it is a tradition which should be upheld ‘wherever possible’ (according to his official spokesperson). It’s a shame he didn’t have this apparent urgency for upholding institutions loved by the people; such as the great traditions of libraries and community centres, which he seems to deem as unimportant enough to fall under his austerity cuts.

 A government which prioritizes the appearance of its record, over the real lives of people – is the raw reality. It is still a segregated field, with a different system enjoyed by the elite than those they claim to represent. They could not bear the prospect of laws recorded on paper or computers, yet can stomach a series of strict council cuts.

Whilst the government seems content to go forwards with its austerity measures (with over £6 billion expected to be cut, considerably affecting local councils by 2019[2]) it still managed to have the time and money to come with agreement with the cabinet office and pay £80,000 annually for the calf skin. As supported by Cabinet Office Minster Matthew Hancock, writing laws on vellum is a great ‘tradition’ which needs to be preserved. This comes at the same time as the much more personal ‘tradition’ of community libraries falls victim to the axe of cuts, traditional children’s centres scrapped, support centres closed. Here in Manchester, the council is planning to increase council tax by up to 4%, whilst facing cuts of up to £13.8m from its budget, for instance[3].  I am not saying that the costs are comparable; obviously there’s a difference between £80,000 and the millions. But what I am saying is that this is a government with a seriously skewed perspective – willing to cut the services which mean something to a majority (i.e. libraries have the capacity to be loved by generations, children centres will always be needed), whilst preserving pomp and circumstances of a minority.

The material they are written on should not matter

Even a small amount of money can give community facilities the boost they need to come alive again; all some libraries were crying out for was an extent of refurbishment to encourage in a wider audience.  People weren’t even given a say over how the cuts were to be coordinated, as many have since come forward expressing their willingness to work voluntarily to keep local facilities living, but to no avail. Vellum is never going to come alive either; instead, it’s sickly appropriate that it is the product of awful exploitation itself – a dead calf. This says enough in itself.  Whilst some may argue ‘ah yes, but it is the laws that are written on the vellum which do come alive/into force’ -  and I am not disputing that -  it is not the material they are written on that should matter. It is the material gain/good they bring about which should be the priority; and right now, there has been little so far given to the social situations of Britain.

Some people may shout me down for lacking nostalgia and even offending history; after all, vellum is capable of keeping records and lasting for as long as 500 years. It is certainly durable and long-lasting; two terms I would not use to describe Britain’s ‘law makers’ at the moment. This is a government feathering its own privileged nest whilst seemingly content to let those of its people freeze over as ‘arbitrary’. Over the years and again in recent discussion, there has been apparent ‘outcry’ from MPs against the introduction of... shock horror... paper, instead of vellum. This ‘outcry’ has been instrumental to keeping the tradition going; so it would have been nice for such a level of passionate force to be placed behind complaints to Cameron’s cuts from inside government. Any respite from  austerity measures has seemed centred on the political nesting ground of Tory-led councils, especially in the South of England, some which have been given a significant amount of £300 million to help support them at a time of the spending cuts[4]; whilst Northern countries not as closely tied with the current political elite receive no entitlement whatsoever. Is this a case of old-school network, old-school values, topped off with vellum?

Furthermore, it’s hard not to get the perception that the current political elite still have different rules for themselves (again feathering the nest) than they do for the general public. Vellum, a high-price product, is a material for the  privileged few – and although it is capable of lasting a long time, yes – modern-day digital records are capable of preserving data for the long-term too, as well as being the network across which many people connect now. It would be much more cost-effective for the government to turn its hand to keeping itself and laws updated on computers – as well providing them with the capacity to connect more actively with constituents, which would be very welcome.

Embracing technology is not a bad thing. Yet recent events have confirmed to me that high politics still seems to turn its nose up at the ‘modern’ public domain; shunning social media, denying internet interaction, especially when it came to people’s argument against the cuts. I am of the view that a variety of media – involving press, print and digital – can get people involved and interested in current events, politics. The government crucially needs to use this, especially in terms of MP’s keeping up-to-date with their constituents, across the board. Vellum is a medium which will only ever be available to the select few.

The government goes for calf, whilst the NHS remains a cattle market

This is a government willing to pledge a lump sum to write on the skin of an animal, whilst funding worries for public services under excessive strain – such as the NHS – go under-discussed. Where is the cabinet office clamour over the sheer frequency of hospital bed crises, as well as figures revealed as part of Mental Health Week; that cuts dating back from 2010 have resulted in 8% fewer mental health beds and 5,000 fewer nurses for mental health.[5]

 This is a system where funds still seem to favour ideological aspects rather than actual incidents. The Guardian has been conducting a month-long investigation into the NHS, revealing that some trusts have been falling into debt by as much £60 million,  and yet the government seems to give more attention to cow skin than the complication. Hospitals such as Addenbrooke’s in Cambridge, has been losing an estimated £1.2 million per week[6].  Yet overturning what was an attempt to remove velum and replace it with paper seems like a bigger priority than addressing the removal of crucial funds from the NHS – where was the cabinet office and MP ‘outcry’ for situations like this?

It’s just another confirmation of cruelty. This is a political system prepared to deal death in order to keep its ‘traditions’ for the few alive; the process of writing on vellum won’t be the pleasure of many, I’m sure. Some may react and argue – well what about history? Vellum has its abilities, after all, to be incredibly long-lasting and has documented some important histories over time; think the Magna Carta, the Slavery Abolition Act. I have studied history myself and value historical records –and the most valuable records of all are of course those of the people. The current political state seems to be splitting apart its people rather than creating something worth recording. Some MPs turn their noses up at the thoughts of laws on paper or a computer and spend time agonising over that, whilst people’s local facilities and libraries can’t even afford to keep any such resources. There is a serious imbalance here.

We’re recording in the wrong way. Right now even, politicians don’t seem to be putting down the crucial points on how they’ll  keep the NHS moving forward, instead they are quietly letting headcount reductions go on, in order for the NHS to cut staff and save money; areas are judged in, budgets, savings. They’d rather make the record look fancy than think about the people themselves; announcing £1 billion investment for mental health for example[7], which rather than  proof governments greatness, is a  long overdue investment which  will largely go on propping-up currently crumbling systems. Waiting times for talking treatment as long as 20 weeks, missed referrals, and the rest....

Grandeur with the goodness scraped away – this government?
It’s easy to feel attracted by big numbers and assumed greatness, as it seems much of political establishment falls into. Its arguments for upholding vellum include that it looks impressive and has a life over 500, and yet here is the irony that we are faced with institutions like the NHS which in their current state will struggle to reach 100.  It’s a sad time when the government would prefer to pay to write on the back of a dead cow, than to put the equivalent into any area which requires funds as a public service; healthcare and councils as just some examples.

Finally, vellum is a vile thing in itself and this is what my point boils down to. I am against any living creature being used as means to an end, and vellum is an example of exactly that – the skin of an innocent baby creature used for no other reason than building up government grandeur. Grandeur with the goodness scraped away from underneath; which just seems like what this political situation is summarising.  When will they see the importance of addressing the people rather than keeping up appearances? When will they get into the people instead of hiding behind a butchered skin?


Sunday, 14 February 2016

A Love Letter to Manchester

You were rebellious from the moment I met you
Promising a beer in the Printworks, the spirit of the street
Was incensed with footfall, red and blue of the football
Served up without pretence, like old record sleeves.

Manchester; warder of wisdom, bartering freedom
With a Salford you insisted was no longer tied
And still those love children – Ancoats, Hulme, Rusholme
Grew up under the influence of an old lovers eyes.

Of course you were trouble, the musk of your perfumes
Through Oxford Road buses, cars at Piccadilly Basin
You charmed with your bars and extended your arm
With an Urbis-like shine to Victoria Station.

More than one night could handle, thick with the banter
Names like Great John and Sackville, Deansgate and Minshull
You were late with light the but it came like insistence
Over the Irwell with kisses like wind-chill.

You raged with your charm and dealt it in stages
Shudehill, NQ, up to Piccadilly Gardens
The spill of your voice spelt out through the noise
Of Moon Under Water, Dry, Star and Garter.

I couldn’t help smile at your sly sense of humour
Sunning your strange ways, unfolding time
Saying you loved every artist, athletic, eccentric
The city still holding, that old Valentine.

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Lose yourself in London, make yourself in Manchester - a mindful city

There seems ongoing competition between Manchester and London, with  the public often  arguing over which place promotes the most ‘positivity’ or best ‘quality of life’ for the people there. These are popular tourist cities, commonly-called places to ‘lose yourself’. After all, going to the city is often seen as a time of ‘looking out’ for things; whether you are looking for a certain purchase, particular item of clothing, or even browsing a gallery or exhibition... yet what I want to draw attention to is the situation that selecting such language to refer to cities can actually be unhelpful. You are not just a consumer in an urban space, you are a conscious, capable individual. Therefore, you shouldn’t just be giving your time to cities, but cities should be giving time to you... and my minutes are in Manchester. With the recent opening of ... in Manchester, as well as the rise of social enterprise of and the work of We Are What We Are, it’s certainly giving the people a peace of mind...

Minutes, mindfulness and Manchester

Why does considering the mind come into it? Think mindfulness; you’ve probably already heard it being talked about. It’s the concept which has been taking personal development by storm, especially amongst students and young people (with so many in Manchester):  the technique is discussed by doctors, celebrated by celebrities including a recent article from Ruby Wax, and even resulted in a cross-parliamentary report last year.  Focusing on the present and  taking time to think about our own thought processes are two of its key components; a personal focus  in order to achieve peace.

Have hope, here

Yet cities don’t always seem like peaceful places. On the surface, so much of ‘enjoying’ Manchester seems marketed as  ‘busy’ and ‘bustling’ – with the popularity of things evaluated on the quantities of crowd they pull in.  Yet what it is important to remember is that there are still spaces in the city you can seek solace in. even if others are there, these are some nooks and crannies which never fail to give a bit of reassurance, allow you to reflect and look inwards. The city life is often celebrated as a tie to ‘lose yourself’ – but I believe in Manchester it doesn’t always have to be the case, hence this is place made for mindfulness, of a kind. Because, what I have found, is that Manchester is place where you can make yourself too; and have hope in it. It’s a city which celebrates the ability of the individual and their expression, no matter where they have come from; as seen in the regular open mic nights, integration of students and professionals and pride in place.

Yet when I was in London for example, there was always this unspoken pressure of making ‘it’
whatever ‘it' is– aspiring for  a socially-fuelled, high-flying ideal which never came any closer. My thoughts were always pre-occupied, reaching for the concept of ‘success’ which was so often discussed, seldom seen. Yet all I found in London was the reality of how alone this made me feel.  I am not saying that London is a negative city, I am just writing to share my experiences that it is a place which boasts  big dreams and aspirations, often marketed as a place people can ‘escape’ to from their lives on the outside. Yet escapism isn’t always the answer, because people’s original lives, thoughts and personalities deserve just as much to be recognised too. Hence why I see Manchester as a city of exploration rather than escape – and that’s a mindful thing.  There are some quiet places, quirky concepts and creative initiatives as ever underway, which anyone can get involved in. Here in Manchester, there is the ability to take time for yourself, to ‘gather your thoughts’, as they say, and get to grips with you….

Some pieces of mine for peace of mind:

1)      The peace of Parsonage Gardens – unlock a little oasis for you and your thoughts! Just off  Deansgate, one of the busiest roads in the city, you may be surprised find this bit of green space, complete with flower plots and benches, so close to bustle. It certainly provides food for thought; as it was historically an area owned by the Le Warre family and used to cultivate food for a parish church. Little pockets left of history give great occasion to reflect. St Mary's Parsonage, Manchester M3 2LF

2)      Considerations at Castlefield – another place  you  can gather your thoughts, as well as enjoy some great scenery.  Particularly profound is the site of ‘Mamucium’ which marks the ancient Roman foundations of the city. Not far from Bridge street and the Museum of Science and Industry, Manchester’s roman heritage rests – tucked away from traffic and tourists – in the form of a partially reconstructed stone fort. Unlike the attention lavished on the preened monuments of the capital city, Mamucium is comparatively quiet and provides perfect food for thought. Considering all that has happened around it, and yet parts still stand, complete with dedicatory Latin inscription, helps put things into perspective

3)      Put yourself in the present at Ziferblat – a quirky café really focused on keeping things contemporary, and comfy too, is  Ziferblat; the social space where you pay 6p a minute. I beloive that this accommodates mindful teachings of understanding the worth of the present; and that a price s attached could be considered surprisingly constructive rather than reductive. How so? The range of resources, free wi-fi and friendly facilities at Ziferblat is enough to motivate anyone to spend their time in the most worthwhile way possible to hem. You can help yourself to refreshments and the environment celebrates the self; you are responsible for your own washing up, just as much as you are responsible for what you create here, even if it’s plating the piano! Therefore Ziferblat doesn’t put a set value you on time – that is  up to you to create – beyond money 23 Edge St, Manchester M4 1HW

4)      Make a difference right now, with hats for the homeless – rough sleeping in the Manchester area has doubled in the past year, a deeply saddening suggested estimate. Paying attention to that and giving a real powerful piece of mind is ‘We Are What We Are’, a clothing retailer and ‘non-prophet’ organisation selling stock in Afflecks Palace. They are currently carrying out ‘Hats for the homeless’; for every hat bought in store they will donate one to someone living on the streets. These guys are articulate and passionate about their project; plus it’s charity you can see shaping the present day – mindful in itself. Rather than a big city conglomerate, this is intimate, honest Manchester at its very best Wawwa, 52 Church Street
Northern Quarter, Manchester, M4 1PW

5)      Hidden issues ; helping address the actuality of anxiety – there is a  dance and performing arts group ‘Hidden Issues’, based in Manchester, which really deserves some attention in terms of the work it is doing to interact with those suffering from anxiety and mental health problems. In the fast-moving modern day, the source if our anxieties can seem pushed into the past, whilst worrying can have us fumbling over the future. ‘Hidden issues’ helps people face the present, through performance; running a number of dance and dramatic arts classes for people suffering with anxiety. It’s now even supported by the O2’s Think  Big Campaign, which is initiative drawing attention to efforts made to uphold healthy minds

Instead of always looking beyond ourselves for entertainment, this is a city which allows you to work within. 

Saturday, 6 February 2016

How To Love

How to
The words did not fit
Like the milk curled at the lip of cup
Of tea I sipped on the library steps
Doors closed but lights within
It was a question asked enough

Over the aisles, the lone attendant
Recommending the self-help corner
The same who types the input
How To’
Into the computer
Nothing other

Than the occasional volume
With well-thumbed spine
Comes up
A saga of shame or the old page-turner
I know I’ll bring myself to find
And see the coffee stains
On the inside cover
Another evening
Another life.

How to the concrete
A thigh can soften
Almost like submission
The steps form a sheet.
For the month is February
And the books promise passion

I wonder at each underlined section
Folded corers, scored crease.

For paper is worn by the fingers
In their old kind of confession
The nail-marks like a shudder
The pale parts like a brine
Of tears that have fallen
From some man or woman
How to
Love, find, focus, see
First given by confession
Then written in lines

How to
Like a library broken
I know the stories

Yet still wait for the keys. 

Monday, 1 February 2016

Love Song From a Library

Why must the story of our death precede the story of our life

A man had fallen on Deansgate, the story went
Open as the leaves of his book
He had thrown to the kerb.  Someone said
The bang of  paper, was strangely shaking
Like a bird with its wings clipped
Trying to turn.

Yearn to be close to the action
-          My brief – although breaking
As I chose library, learning
That so many stares
Searched for something deeper
Than ambulances, policemen
I clutched the spine in my fingers
Where his hands
Once were.

We are taught to look forward
To tragedy, accident
But isn’t this habitat
The paper confirmed
Compiled and looked over
Rather than the writers who wrote him
Into a bulletin

The feel of paper
Hard to imagine
Before he was taken by circumstance

And returned, and returned.