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Filming Locations

The venues used for some of the Leeds Film Festival’s screenings this year were just about as memorable as the films themselves. For those of you who didn’t make it along (tomorrow is the final day), here are some photos of the grand Baroque-stylings of Leeds Town Hall, described by Architecture Today as “the epitome of northern civic bombast” and, slightly further out of town, the hidden gem that is the Hyde Park Picture House, built in 1908 as a hotel, converted to a cinema in 1914, and saved from closure by Leeds City Council who have lovingly maintained it since 1989. It’s Grade II listed, lit by gas, and still has a piano and organ. What more could you ask for? Ultra-comfy seats, a bar and a balcony? Well, you’re in luck because it has those too.

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Oh! The films we went to see? Jean-Pierre Melville’s muted and entrancing classic “policier“, Le Cercle Rouge, which has one of the best casts of any French crime movie you care to name (Alain Deloin AND Yves Montand!) and one of the most masterful jewel heist scenes since Rififi. The second film was also understated but was perhaps more inconsequential than existential. A low-budget Romanian drama from 2001, Marfa si banii (Stuff and Dough as in, goods and money) was directed by Cristi Puiu, who you might know better for The Death of Mr Lazarescu (2005). Combining elements of road-movie, chase-movie, and social realist critique, three twenty-somethings take a trip to Bucharest with what a family ‘friend’ has told them is “medicine”, hoping the promised $2,000 might get them quickly and easily out of aimless and difficult lifestyles. Of course, it’s not so straightforward. Both films remind us in very different ways that a life of crime can be more trouble than it’s worth. Melville suggests that nonetheless, it can be done carefully, with honour, and with style. The thief can be a hero of sorts or at least, a gentleman even if he is ultimately doomed. For Puiu’s less well-heeled protagonists, there is only naiveté, disagreement and exploitation. All of which makes for very good cinema!

Citizen Journalism

Today I gave a guest lecture through at Liverpool John Moores University on ‘Citizen Journalism’ – an extremely fascinating and more or less recent phenomenon that can be linked to the rise of mobile/digital technologies, the internet, and multimedia content, as well as to disillusionment with, or disengagement from the ‘traditional’ press. Even if you’re not familiar with theories or debates around Citizen Journalism, you’ve doubtless seen countless examples of it in practise already; including the most mainstream news broadcasters and online publishers. Citizen Journalism is, in essence, unprofessional journalism, conducted by ‘ordinary’ members of the public. Naturally there is a lot to debate about what the potentials of Citizen Journalism are, how it contrasts with or complements professional journalism, and how it might develop in future. What insights can we gain if we analyse it in terms of style, content, politics, economics? I’m making my slides available here so please feel free to download them and let me know what your own views are. The embedded version below might have a few formatting glitches – apologies! Click the options button for notes.



Many thanks to Dr Iqbal Akthar and his lovely students for their input and enthusiasm, and for making me feel extremely welcome. Despite the cold and the rain, it was really nice to be in Liverpool again. 🙂

Anarchy Lives and Breathes

For months now posters and banners have been appearing all over the city centre to promote the 4th Manchester International Festival which brings artists and performers from around the world together for 3 weeks worth (almost) of exciting, new and original events. I’d hoped to go along to something but feared it might all be a bit expensive and had put off making arrangements. Imagine my joy then when a friend unexpectedly offered me a free ticket. Hurrah! After a few drinks in Albert Square, off we went to the Albert Hall, properly opened for the night to host an incredibly short but powerful performance by the massively popular Maxine Peake (does anyone NOT love her?!). She was here to interpret one of the most radical pieces of poetry written in the English language to date: Percy Bysshe Shelley’s The Masque of Anarchy. As you probably know, this was Shelley’s reaction to “the Occasion of the Massacre at Manchester” – the Peterloo Massacre of 1819 where hundreds of peaceful protestors were injured by government troops (Hussars and infantrymen) on horseback, 18 in total being killed.

Manchester town hall: not far from where the Massacre happened

The Albert Hall is usually shut. It’s been in a state of uncertainty for a number of years with the downstairs now and then used as a bar and the chapel upstairs in semi-disrepair, although it’s soon to reopen as a music hall. Repurposed by MIF as a pop-up performance space, this meant that Ms. Peake had an amazing place to orate from, emerging (it seemed out of nowhere) onto the candle-lit vestry where at moments she shook with a nervous adrenaline brought on most surely by the power of the words she was to share. Her tone and manner were those of an imploring, fiery and impassioned prophetess conjuring a vision for all who would listen. For a fleeting moment I wondered if her delivery was a little over the top. She quickly disabused me of that notion, or maybe she just made me forget. Like a muse summoned by Shelley himself she urged and implored us, still at first and then (in the poem’s final and longest movement) with outstretched hands. We (or at least the English) must stand fast against oppression; rise like lions after slumber against the ghastly and bloody pretenses of the corrupt authorities who hide from us their true nature.

peake orates

It’s blurry because she was all spectral and Joan of Arc like, okay?

As she came off stage to walk ghost-like through the crowd, at least half of the audience were left wondering how it could all have gone by so quickly. Ninety-one stanzas in barely over fifteen minutes! Leigh Hunt did not choose to publish this poem until after Shelley’s death, saying that he felt “the public were not yet sufficiently discerning to do justice to the sincerity and kind-heartedness of the spirit with which this flaming robe of verse is written”. Whether or not that was his real reason I am not qualified to say but it makes me wonder how much more discerning we are these days? Personally speaking, I vaguely remember reading the poem as an undergrad, and probably even saw an original copy at the Keats-Shelley house over in Rome. But if I’m honest, it’s not one that really struck me. During this performance the poem not only came to life, it transcended its source. It almost felt like we were part of some great historical moment. Quite possibly we would be, if only we could be shaken out of our apathy.

Fans of Maxine can hear her talking about her part in the Festival here.

Networking Communities

I’ve just started a summer research placement project with the Manchester Digital Laboratory – aka MadLab – and it’s already proving to be an eye-opener. The theme of our project is communities – which are MadLab’s raison d’être; but although I’ve heard people talking about it more than once over the past year, I have to admit I’ve never actually been there before now. Seeing the space and how it’s used is pretty inspiring. Around 50 groups use MadLab regularly, with many more hiring it for one-off or special events – performances, workshops, training sessions. At the same time, it’s friendly, down-to-earth and totally unpretentious, buzzing with a relaxed creativity that attracts groups as diverse as android developers, poets, and budding taxidermists, who drop in and out to share ideas, crack on with work, and generally have a nice time doing what they are passionate about with others who feel the same. It could be hard to find space otherwise. So, that’s the sales pitch, right? Well, actually, it’s entirely accurate. So it seems to me anyway. Finding useful and exciting ways to demonstrate what MadLab is all about using data, graphics, and the 9 days we have available to us, is what our MadLab Community Networking Project is all about. It’s going to be an interesting challenge!

Anna at the Wall

Mapping some of MadLab’s diverse communities

With input and advice from MadLab’s Dave Mee and DARE‘s David Jackson, graphic designer/researcher Anna Frew and myself are going to be gathering, organising and manipulating information about the techies, creatives and other enthusiasts who bring MadLab to life. What are the characteristics of these groups and what are the connections between them? Who and what drives them? How active are they and how do they intersect with public or private sector organisations elsewhere in the city? There are miriad ways to look at the data. Sifting through different sources and different types of documentation, we can identify what we know and what we need to know. Then we can start gathering information from the groups themselves, fleshing everything out and filling in the gaps. Our aim is to shed new light on MadLab, mapping and modelling the networks that operate inside and around it and making it clearer how they fit within its ecosystem. My task is to bring some structure to a bundle of data and metadata, and enrich it. After which, Anna will begin to create some at once beautiful and informative visualisations, giving us multiple perspectives on MadLab’s communities. Naturally this will all end up online at some point. Or so I imagine. The details aren’t yet entirely clear since we’re only just getting started. If you want to know more about our emerging workflows and thought-processes, please do go over to Anna’s blog and read her excellent write-up of what we’ve been doing in Weeks 1 and 2.

Dave's notepad

There are multiple ways to diagram…

For me, the project is a great opportunity. It provides a pathway to learning more not just about data visualisations, which have interested me for a while, but also about the challenges involved in creating and maintaining communities, and the value that organisations like MadLab can bring to a city. As you can see, Post-It notes and brain-storming will be just as important as databases and JavaScript to our workflow! Soon we should have a dedicated space on Tumblr, and eventually an article about the project will appear in the TACIT journal although we have a lot of work to do before then! Please do check back here for updates and let us know if you’re a MadLab member who wants to help us out [madlabcommunityproject at gmail.com].

Little Green

People often refer to Chorlton, where I live now in Manchester, as “leafy” or green – and to be sure, on a sunny day, it is certainly one of the nicer places to be. The scents of flowers and plants drift through the streets from various front gardens and parks to provide a reassuring sense that here at least, nature is asserting herself just a little. Still, moving between two cities throws up inevitable comparisons, and back in Glasgow for a few days, I couldn’t help but think that there is nowhere quite like the city’s beautiful West End, which really does come alive on a warm day (20 degrees Celsius!) with a combination of urban modernity and lovingly maintained foliage that most cities would really envy.

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Well, Glasgow does mean “dear green place” after all. Or something like that. Maybe I’m getting nostalgic! Who would have thought I’d get more of a suntan North of the Border than down here? 🙂

Wild and Playful Artistry

Raqib Shaw‘s latest exhibition has brought new life and colour to the Manchester Art Gallery – both inside and out. Having draped their railings with flowers, foliage, and the twisted branches of Willows, the museum invites you inside to find Kashmiri-born/London-based Raqib’s work scattered and displayed in various locations. Vivid, fantastical scenes combine real and fictional creatures within sparkling fairytale landscapes both Indian and European in influence; together these conjure up a mythology that feels familiar – like a childhood memory – and highly original – bold and shocking. Surveying his beautiful (and at times slightly macabre) menagerie you can almost hear the sound of wild animals. Of course it’s always nice to look at the more traditional pieces in the Gallery’s collection, but finding one of Shaw’s pieces next to say, George Stubbs, or Charles-August Mengin, makes for an enjoyably startling contrast.

Although given a vast amount of space in the Patron’s Gallery, I’d say that it’s more stimulating finding Shaw’s works amongst pieces from the Victorian era. Seeing them all at once threatens to generate a certain loss of impact that comes from being over-awed by his use of jewels, gold, and enamel. Similarly, Susie MacMurray‘s Widow – a stunning and meditative dress made using black leather and 100,000 adamantine silver pins – is equally helped by being positioned among pieces dealing with life and death in the 17th century. New observations and ideas arise at these intersections. MacMurray’s dress says something about mortality as flawlessly as any of the masters behind her.

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Something I also really like about the Gallery is the space that is devoted to activities for kids/big kids in the Clore Interactive Gallery. Technical problems aside (sadly many machines were out-of-order when I visited) it’s great to find a play space where you can let your imagination wander and your creative side express itself after soaking up all the “proper” artworks. Of course, participation is a big thing in museums and cultural institutions these days and it’s not always done well. Sometimes the best you can hope for is a pile of hastily gathered crayons and a few “give us your comments” cards; not exactly inspiring! For me, the Manchester Gallery has got it spot on. Somehow they manage to offer a range of activities that are as stimulating for adults as they are for children. In fact, I’m fairly sure it was exclusively adults who were “interacting” with the objects in the Clore room on Sunday! By letting visitors climb into a giant rotating “kaleidoscope”, invent their own “free form” still life compositions, or activate a 3-D spinning model of a painting (Marion Adnams’ Lost Infant), artworks are brought to life in a way that encourages collaboration.

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Raqib Shaw’s exotic monkeys – and the lovely staff who let people wander around taking as many photographs as they like! – demonstrate in quite different ways that going to a gallery is definitely not all about tradition, reverence, and intimidating curation. Creativity is, after all, all about a certain freedom.

Burning Bright

For reasons unknown I have never yet visited one of Manchester’s most treasured and beloved tourist attractions – the stunning neo-Gothic John Rylands Library, part of the University of Manchester. Considering how long I’ve been here now, this is a strange omission. Not just because of the library’s ultra-convenient city centre location (it’s on Deansgate) but also because of my life long love of all things library related. On Saturday, prompted by good weather, a visit from my Mum, and the presence of an exhibition called Burning Bright, I finally went along to take a look. Burning Bright (as you might guess) focuses on William Blake – arguably the most versatile and visionary of the English Romantics; and in particular, on his book engravings and etchings.

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I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that to see some of Blake’s work up close is to be truly stunned by not only his craft and his technical prowess, but by the ability of deceptively simple two-dimensional scenes to conjure up a myriad of spiritual, moral, and mystical associations. A version of Edward Young’s popular poem Night Thoughts, containing over 40 specially commissioned watercolours by Blake, is one of the most memorable exhibits. Published in 1797 and a commercial failure, only 26 copies of this first part of the poem were ever produced, making it a truly significant gem in the Rylands collection.

Another exhibition called An Inventory of al-Mutanabbi Street presented a “re-assembled” imaginative “inventory” of reading material destroyed in a 2007 car bombing in Baghdad’s revered (and still under pressure) literary and cultural centre. Although a thought-provoking and original idea – the brainchild of poet Beau Bosoleil and researcher Sarah Bodman – I felt that a more modern and minimal gallery environment would have allowed the works on display here to shine far more brightly. Somehow, they did not have the power to displace the overwhelming symbolism and the hushed, spiritual atmosphere of the library itself.

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John Rylands is certainly a thing of wonder, regardless of any exhibitions on display. Built in the 1890s and funded by Enriqueta Rylands in memory of her late husband, it’s actually pretty hard to believe that the building is so modern. With its medieval style and quiet, church-like atmosphere, you imagine it must have been here for far longer. This was of course the architectural fashion of the time but apparently Enriqueta was a rather unconventional woman and actually asked that they tone down some of the psuedo-religious features of the library. Standing at either end of the spacious but nook-filled reading room, Victoria and Albert style statues of the Rylands themselves are just a little bit self aggrandising.