A Democratic Promenade

News reports from around the world suggest a growing momentum behind the Occupy Movement on the morning that I explore the new exhibition at the Bluecoat, Democratic Promenade.  The title comes from Walter Dixon Scott’s description of the Landing Stage in his 1907 book Liverpool, and the exhibition responds to 2011’s Liverpool: City of Radicals theme with an eclectic mashup of examples of artistic,  cultural and political rebellion from the past century in Liverpool.

The City of Radicals celebration has been prompted by events 100 years ago that had a significance culturally, architecturally and politically: a seminal exhibition by the Post-Impressionists at the Bluecoat, the death of Robert Tressell, the opening of the Liver Building, controversial in its design and cast-concrete fabrication, and the transport strike that brought the city ‘near to revolution’.

The exhibition presents artworks and archival material that document and celebrate moments from Liverpool’s radical past (in both a political and a cultural sense) as well as new works from artists interrogating the meaning of democracy and radicalism now, in 2011.

The beginning of the 20th century was a watershed for the Bluecoat, which became the UK’s first combined arts centre in 1907.  It was home to the Sandon Studios Society, whose members included the Polish émigré, Albert Lipczinski  and Roderick Bisson, the latter a major discovery for me – unknown to me, and (a quick Google suggests) pretty much the rest of the world.

Roderick Bisson (1910-87) came under the influence of European modernism in the 1930s and 1940s, reflected in the paintings on display here. Visits to pre-war Paris, reading of avant-garde art publications, and an early adoption of
Surrealism, all combined to give Bisson a highly contemporary outlook and connection to the latest ideas from the Continent.  The work that most struck me was ‘Building Ablaze in Church Alley’ from 1941 – a response to the Liverpool blitz.  The painting, which has echoes of John Piper, pictures Phillip Son & Nephew, the leading Liverpool bookshop of the time (and my time, when I arrived in the city as a student in the late 1960s) ablaze, with a Penguin paperback in the foreground.

‘Woman Asleep’ (above) and ‘Three Women Washing and Brushing Their Hair’ are two other paintings by Bisson featured in the exhibition.

As an example of the eclecticism of this exhibition, the exhibit that caught my attention next was a display of  Smash Robots made in the 1970s by Ford workers at the Halewood plant.  Made clandestinely by workers during their shifts from the company’s materials, they pay homage to the robots from the legendaryCadbury’s Smash Potato advertisements. The model robots, some looking better than the ones in the TV adverts, were later sold in pubs, and to my mind are as radical as anything on display here –  a typically Scouse assertion of autonomy by workers supposedly chained to the regimentation of the assembly-line.

A focal point of the exhibition is a new film commission from David Jacques, The Irlam House Bequest, narrated by local poet Paul Farley,which imagines the discovery of drawings in a Bootle tower block of templates for 19th century trade union banners. Jacques was the creator of the banner commissioned to mark the centenary of Robert Tresssell’s death that has been located on Dale Street for much of this year.

Oliver Walker’s installation Mr Democracy, features 1,000 dolls imported from China, programmed to recite an imagined British constitution written by Chinese law students.  This is the artist’s response to the fact that the UK is one of only three countries in the world not to have a written constitution.  The constitution was developed in Shanghai by three postgraduate constitutional law students from the East China University of Politics and Law.  Ironically exploring ideas about trade, democracy and globalisation, the work poses the question – if you want something manufactured, where else would you have the job done these days but authoritarian China?

Brigitte Jurack’s installation, evoking Arthur Dooley’s lost Speakers’ Podium, is less striking.  It comprises a large red banner draped above a collection of models representing ideas for a 21st century speakers’ platform – none of them at all inspiring  Dooley’s podium, a sort of Tatlin’s Tower once situated at the Pier Head, was a local landmark, and especially close to the hearts of protesters and trade unionists who gathered around it for more than two decades. Alongside Jurack’s installation are displayed nostalgic photographs of the original, first erected in 1973.

The podium was commissioned by the Transport & General Workers Union and designed in 1973 by Arthur Dooley and the architect Jim Hunter. It won a RIBA design award in 1975 but disappeared when the City Council redeveloped the Pier Head in the 1990s.  It was later discovered, rusting away in a Council depot (seen below, in an article from the Liverpool Echo in 1994 displayed in the exhibition).

One gallery on the ground floor illustrates the eclecticism of this exhibition. There are delicate paper designs in the style of 19th century socialist and trade union banners created by Rose Vickers, a contemporary artist who seems to have been influenced by William Morris in her work.  However, the colours and designs are as bland as the slogans: ‘We Make Our Own Future’ and ‘Yesterday Is History, Tomorrow Is A Mystery’. Profound!

On an adjacent wall are photographs  by John Davies that comment on the privatisation of public green space in Liverpool, including the International Garden Festival site.  We can assume there’ll be plenty more of that sort of thing in the near future.  There are cartoons and memorable front pages from the Liverpool Free Press, the city’s great alternative newspaper that exposed corruption and injustice throughout the 1970s.

There’s a lot of Adrian Henri here, too – almost a whole room, it seems.  Not his painting, but his poetry and material that documents his performance art as a member of the Liverpool Scene.

On display, for example, is the cover of the Liverpool Scene’s first album, The Amazing Adventures Of, which shows the regulars outside O’Conners Tavern on Leece Street, where the band performed every week in the upstairs room.  It’s a bit special for me as I used to go along to their heady mixture of poetry, jazz and acoustic guitar every Tuesday evening when I first came here as a university student in 1967. The gatefold cover shows pub regulars on the street outside with the O’Connors landlord, Jimmy Moore, in the centre, (the guy in the braces).

Meanwhile, upstairs Dave Sinclair’s photos document the 1985 School Students’ Strike when thousands of kids marched through Liverpool city centre in protest at job creation schemes which were regarded as cheap labour ‘conscription’, before ending their demonstration at the Pier Head where they were addressed from Dooley’s podium by, amongst others, Militant MP Terry Fields.

There are images, too, of other instances of collective action by crowds occupying public spaces in protests against living and working conditions. One depicts the crowds on St Georges Plateau on 13 August 1911 – ‘Bloody Sunday’ – during the Liverpool Transport Strike. Close on 100,000 workers had turned out to hear speeches by workers and leaders of the unions, including Tom Mann, who made this speech to the crowd:

A hundred thousand people have come to the centre of Liverpool this afternoon. The authorities have allowed us to ‘police’ this hundred thousand ourselves. Why? Because they enjoy surrendering their power? Or because they’re afraid of being trampled underfoot. …

We’re gathered here today, peacefully, to demonstrate our determination to win this long and terrible battle against the employing classes and the state. What does that mean? Only this. All the transport workers of Liverpool are arm-in-arm against the enemy class. We have sent a letter to the employers asking for an early settlement and a speedy return to work. If that brings no reply, if they ignore us, The Strike Committee advises a general strike.

In the face of the military and the police drafted into this city – and of the threat to bring gunboats into the Mersey – we can see nothing except a challenge. A challenge to every worker who values his job. A challenge to every claim each worker makes of his employer. A challenge to every right a worker should expect under common decency. Brothers, we rise to this challenge. And we meet it, head on.”

The demonstration went without incident until about 4 o’clock, when, completely unprovoked, the crowds of workers suddenly came under attack from the police. Indiscriminately attacking bystanders, the police succeeded in clearing the steps of St George’s Hall in half an hour, despite resistance from strikers who used whatever they could find as weapons. Fighting soon spilled out into nearby streets, causing the police and troops to come under attack as workers pelted them with missiles from rooftops.

Another image records the occupation of the Walker Art Gallery by members of the National Unemployed Workers’ Committee Movement (NUWCM) in 1921.  The NUWCM was formed in the years following the First World War when thousands of men had returned from the trenches to mass unemployment and poverty in cities such as Liverpool. Resentment set in and, led by the Communist Party of Great Britain, the NUWCM organized itself under the slogan of ‘Work or Maintenance’ and an agenda for action centred on non-violent protests and demonstrations.

During a rally on St Georges Plateau, one of the organizers said:

I think we’ll go for a walk… A short walk. It’s too late for anything else. We’ll all be art critics this afternoon. We’ll go across and have a look at the pictures in the Art Gallery. Those places are as much for us as anybody else. They belong to the public.

George Garrett who had spoken at the rally later wrote:

Inside the Art Gallery, more police caused pandemonium, men yelped aloud as they were batoned down. Others dashed around panic-stricken. A few desperate ones dropped from an open window into a side street and got away. Those attempting to follow were struck down from behind. The police closed all windows and doors. There were no further escapes. Batons split skull after skull. Men fell where they were hit. The floor streamed with blood. Those lying on it were trampled on by others who were soon flattened out alongside them. Gallery workers were battered, too. The police had gone wild.

Another display brings together photographs, leaflets and posters documenting student protests at Liverpool University between 1968 and 1970, events that began with an expose of the University as the owner of slum housing in which families experienced dreadful living conditions. That revelation brought tenants and students together to protest at the official opening by Princess Alexandra of the new Senate House in May 1969. Growing tensions between students and the university authorities came to a head with the occupation of Senate House in March 1970 over issues encapsulated in ‘The Five Demands’ and dominated by the issue of the racist beliefs of the University Chancellor and questions about University investments in apartheid South Africa.  After the occupation, disciplinary hearings resulted in nine students being suspended (among them Jon Snow) and one expelled.

I was involved in those protests, and in the summer I had been approached by Bryan Biggs, the exhibition curator, who was interested in incorporating something about the student protests in the displays.  He was especially interested in the posters that had been produced during the Senate sit-in, but also borrowed photos, press cuttings and leaflets which are now displayed as part of he exhibition.  There is, for example, this photo of students marching to join tenants on the Princess Alexandra demonstration – that’s me on the far left.

These are the Five Demands of the Senate House occupation, displayed in the window for passers-by to see.

There are examples of the posters produced during the occupation by Frank Milner, influenced by the work of the Atelier Populaire, the poster workshop that emerged during the May events in Paris in 1968.

In one of the exhibition captions, Frank Milner explains how the posters were made;

During the occupation of Senate House I made posters in the large entrance hall. My equipment was woefully crude, a regular wooden frame held by rising butt hinges to a plywood base, with the silk screen nailed tight to the outer edges. But I did use professional ink and had a proper squeegee too. Whip-rounds were made for ink and paper and I found a place in town that sold printer’s offcuts trimmed to poster size at about 50p for 100 sheets.

Paris May ’68 posters were definitely my inspiration, such superb images, so simple and direct. However the French students had photoscreens and all the paraphernalia of proper art departments.  I had a wobbly table and paper stencils that disintegrated after 80 pulls when the turps used to dilute the ink soaked into the paper, and I spread the posters on the floor to dry.  I was very lucky really – left to get on with what I was OK at doing – and everyone was pretty appreciative.  But it was a bit messy.

Silk screen posters, even if they were crude, bridged the gap between the usual laborious hand-drawn placards and the professionally printed job. With the silk screen you could get something out really quickly. When ten students were sent down by the University I produced posters within a couple of hours. Later, when I worked at the Walker Art Gallery, I’d attend exhibition openings in the  entrance hall at Senate House. During the boring opening speeches I used to entertain
myself finding the old ink marks on the floor from the posters I’d made 15 years earlier.

I was pleased with the Old Chancellors poster. Everyone kept banging on about what a frail old man Lord Salisbury was. He seemed pretty active to me, and toxic too – one of  the last people you would want to be your university chancellor. Despite Liverpool University nowadays priding itself on its liberal credentials and recently praising the 1970 occupation, one of its halls of residence is still called Salisbury Hall.

Frank Milner at the exhibition opening

As noted earlier, the exhibition title is taken from Walter Dixon Scott’s description of the Liverpool landing stage at the Pier Head in his 1907 book, Liverpool.  Dixon Scott was born in Kirkdale in 1881, to a well-to-do family and went to work for the Midland Bank in Castle Street, Liverpool. He left when he was 25 to become a writer, but died at Gallipoli nine years later in 1915. Paul Du Noyer, author of Liverpool: Wondrous Place, once said of  Walter Dixon Scott’s book:

This is just the most beautiful set of descriptions about the city, written for the 700th anniversary of its charter. It’s a portrait of the people and industry and commerce vitality and the poorer areas, the clerks commuting on the morning ferries from the Wirral, in that year. The evocation of sky over the city at sunset is superb. It is also illustrated with beautiful engravings of the city, ranging from the waterfront, to the little cigar shop on Mount Pleasant.

A comprehensive  guide accompanies the exhibition, and it begins by elaborating on Walter Dixon Scott’s idea of the democratic promenade:

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, in the shifting terrain of the modern metropolis, the idea of the city as a democratic promenade also provides a useful measure of how urban centres function: Tony Lane describes successful cities in this new global environment as ‘democratic places whose  citizens are simultaneously intolerant of intolerance and captivated by creativity’. Now though, as ‘the veneer of democracy starts to fade’ with tensions showing within the financial, political and social structures of developed countries, democracy seems to be increasingly ‘under duress’. At the same time there are calls from around the world for democracy and new forms of participation in the political process where none has previously existed. And artists, alongside thinkers, writers, musicians, performers, commentators and others involved in cultural discourse, articulate such concerns or aspirations in different ways – through direct engagement, or more obliquely in their work. Whilst this exhibition does not claim to reflect the present turbulence and calls to establish or re-examine democracy, it is however envisaged as a journey, a promenade, through a diverse range of creative practices,across time and in different places, which engage in some way with processes of change or of radical expression.

I thought of the relevance of that assessment as, later, I read accounts of how, in The Guardian’s words, ‘a month to the day after 1,000 people first turned up in Wall Street to express their outrage at corporate greed and social inequality, campaigners are reflecting on a weekend that saw a relatively modest demonstration in New York swell into a truly global howl of protest‘. In Liverpool, peaceful protesters occupied Barclays Bank.

Even the Financial Times, in its editorial today, says:

Today only the foolhardy would dismiss a movement reflecting the anger and frustration of ordinary citizens from all walks of life around the world … the fundamental call for a fairer distribution of wealth cannot be ignored. …  The bargain has always been that all who work hard should have an opportunity for prosperity. That has been shattered by a crisis brought about by financial excess and political cynicism. The consequence has been growing inequality, rising poverty and sacrifice by those least able to bear it – all of which are failing to deliver economic growth. … The cry for change is one that must be heeded.

Liverpool

Madrid

San Francisco

Boston

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