Radical Futures

Lesley Taker looks back at our Summers of Discontent and asks: how did the city’s art scene embrace the anarchic power of 100 years of Liverpool Radicalism? 

Liverpool is one of Britian’s most visited and, reportedly, friendliest cities in the UK. What is it that keeps people coming back for more? The late night shopping?  The indefatigable Beatles memorabilia?  The sparring footie clubs?

Or is it our thriving, surprising and often conflicted underground culture which pulls the tourist away from the big boys and chucks ‘em up North? 2011 saw the centenary of one of the most vibrant, violent and culturally important years in Liverpool’s recent history, a year which showed exactly what Scousers were made of, and importantly, what they were capable of, and prepared to fight for.

1911 was also a pretty big deal on many fronts for the city. The Liver Building was finally crowned with its mythical avian mysteries and opened to the world as an architectural first. The now infamous transport strikes pushed the city to the brink of revolution and brought a warship up the Mersey. At the same time, the Bluecoat played host to one of the most innovative exhibitions Britain had seen – the first Post-Impressionists show, earlier showed in the capital. Artist and critic Roger Fry chose the Sandon Society’s Studios at the Bluecoat on School Lane, to exhibit artists previously unseen outside London. The likes of Matisse, Van Gogh, Picasso and Cezanne where exhibited alongside local and national artists, creating a sort of democratic show previously unheard of.

This year the Walker revisited Fry’s 1911 exhibition, in an attempt to evoke the original outrage and vibrancy of the Sandon Society’s show, setting the artists who appeared in the original, controversial show against a backdrop of revolution, using a film-reel of the unrest and large installation photomontages of the dock and transport strikes. These images of protests and marches – the most notable of which took place on the gallery’s doorstep in what was later called ‘Red Sunday’ (pictured) – loomed large over the peripheral artworks, throwing the Post-Impressionists into the innovative, contentious light their work was first met with. So, a hundred years on, is our city still bursting with groundbreaking artists, revolutionaries, and radicals?

“The art scene in Liverpool has not backed down from the fight, but rather met it head on”

Bloody right it is. The year has been one of Radicalism Revisited; from the summer rioting, to the widespread protests against unending cuts and countless marches and occupations in between, 2011 has seen an uprising akin to that of 100 years ago. It has been a big year for the city and its explosive underground culture and independent core. As ever, the art scene in Liverpool has not backed down from the fight, but rather met it head on; questioning, arguing, mocking and critiquing.

In a show set up with the City of Radicals group, Bryan Biggs curated an exhibition at the Bluecoat which at once pushed and pulled; taking us back to the time of the punk-rock powerhouse Eric’s, of Adrian Henri’s ‘Happenings’, of the bubbling socialist unrest and uprising throughout the beginning of the century, right through into the 1980’s with the school strikes and Toxteth riots. In doing so, we were propelled back to the present, ongoing protests revisited, and granted a potential vision of our future. A varied questioning of the discourses and practises of democracy and radicalism crowded into the galleries at the Bluecoat: from Rose Vicker’s beautifully hand crafted posters, at once earnest and blithely sarcastic, that we need to be prepared to “Make Our Own Future”, to the local art collective Dorothy, directly engaged with the centenary of a Liverpudlian Radicalism by creating The Nineteen Hundred and Eleven Party, a slogan-heavy, mock propagandist call to arms in the gallery, in turn celebrating and questioning the state of Liverpool’s pursuit of idealism and revolution.

FACT, as part of AND Festival, also found itself in the throes of revolution this autumn, reflecting our city’s own radicalism and revolt on a global scale. Ahmed Basiony’s Thirty Days of Running in Place, an installation featuring footage taken by Ahmed’s own camera in Tahir Square during the Egyptian unrest; an uprising in which many protestors were beaten, imprisoned and killed. In the audio-visual mirror created by the dual projections in this piece, there lay a suggestion of thinly-veiled brutality within the touchingly vulnerable humanity of a body under exertion, stress or oppression. Basiony took the violence of oppression, the exercise of pushing the body (and society) to its limits, and placed this concept within his own unending, optimistic hope for radical change despite the constraints of a cyclical and seemingly impenetrable system.

Beyond the galleries, where the true Radical Liverpool can be found, this has been the year of The Independents. The artist led groups, the DIY venues, the exhibitions created and curated by the unpaid interns of art projects: these are the places where true radicalism can be found, not in spite of the cuts and the continual draining of cultural resources, but because of it. The constant disappearance of government-funded projects and foundations have forced the city’s artists to look inward for inspiration, assistance and support. True, this year has been tainted by the loss of promising venues, to the capital, or more unforgivably, to nothing at all. But in this sad wake, the make-do and mend spirit is running high with venues and spaces like Wolstenholme Creative Space, Camp & Furnace, and The Royal Standard pulling out everything to keep the city’s artistic pulse raging.

It is here, on the fringes, in the underground, where the true Radical revolution is happening. Both pragmatic and inspirational, the slogan seems to be ‘Can’t get a job? Make one’. In uncertain, unprofitable times, creatives need to force the pace. Why are the arts important? Why give money to galleries and artistic projects? Because they are vital to more than just those directly involved. They create a community spirit more tangible than a think-tanked scheme such as the ‘Big Society’ could ever achieve. This community spirit can be our salvation, but it must not be faked, manufactured or falsely harnessed. Radical Liverpool thrives on this community spirit, both in the arts and further afield. It is a community borne of revolution, upheaval, and the anarchic. In short, of Radicalism.

Lesley Taker

Image © Liverpool Record Office, Liverpool Libraries

Posted on 31/12/2011 by thedoublenegative