Rogues’ Galleries – Reviewed

With high streets taking a hit from the recession, Chester finds a novel way of injecting life back into empty spaces …

If you’re in Chester to do a bit of shopping, you may notice an injection of rather conspicuous public art. Rogues’ Galleries is a new project from the people behind Chester Performs, setting out to ”celebrate the independence of thought and artistry that make up our communities” and highlight “the struggles the high street has with homogeneous brands and the effect this has on original thought.”

In practical terms this means fifteen UK artists have taken over empty spaces in the city centre for 11 days, commissioned around themes of traditional trades, guilds and shops – haberdashery, cobblers, launderers – with a focus on interactive installation and performance.

First stop: starting point and main event venue The Hub. We unwittingly pass it several times; finding your way around the first floor heritage ‘rows’ of Chester proves a bit of a nightmare, albeit a strangely enjoyable one. We stagger in and get a cup of tea; under the low-beams there’s someone called Harald, playing chess with vegetables (which we deliberately avoid), and a questionable arrangement of pink tin cans, titled TINS, next to the bar. This is not a good start.

“Finding your way around the first floor heritage ‘rows’ of Chester proves a bit of a nightmare, albeit a strangely enjoyable one”

We have a go at the main piece, an interactive (literal) rogue’s gallery – an ‘automated photographic studio’ that takes pictures of you as you stare in through the window, then pastes your face onto archived portraits from yesteryear. This is fun, like using a passport booth, and seems like a small taste of artist Chris Squire’s work.

Upstairs, Harry Giles holds ‘highly unqualified debt counselling’ sessions (scruffy suit, questionable advice, walls covered in scribbled flow charts and second hand office chairs), and artist couple Two Destination Language are flogging all their worldy possessions, auction-style, for cash or a story. The artists are warm and dismiss any awkwardness, but we want to be impressed. Our appetites are whetted for more challenging pieces.

“Here sits Anoushka Athique, quietly repairing clothes … more honest conversations are forthcoming when there’s time to sit and reflect”

Onwards to The Haberdashery, an empty, soulless shop in similarly soulless shopping centre. Here sits Anoushka Athique, quietly repairing clothes. There are echoes of the piece we’ve just seen – the payment is again a story – but there is a marked difference in vibe. The artist admits that more honest conversations are forthcoming when there’s time to sit and reflect; stories that are shared here tend to be more personal, or just weird (one story on the wall talks of Malaysian spirits at the bottom of the stairs).

In the same area, a terrifying hard-faced salesperson dressed all in white welcomes you to Aulnager Boutique, advising you ‘how to find the perfect fit’. We admit this is the performance art that we dread – in your face, silently screaming PARTICIPATE, wanting you to talk to an actor and try on clothes. However, an unexpected twist (which we won’t spoil) as we enter the changing rooms alters everything, and this ends up being memorable.

“We admit this is the performance art that we dread – in your face, silently screaming PARTICIPATE”

Next up: The Scriveners (scribe or clerk, copyist or writer) is comfortably the best commission. Nestled at the back of an old art-deco cinema, a woman sits typing in the tiny glass shop window. Her finished typed scripts are pasted to the glass – copied text (in black) that’s interrupted with her own thoughts (in red) every time she’s distracted. It may be obvious (we’re suckers for typewriter-art, ever since we saw a typewriter orchestra at The Whitworth gallery), but the stamp of keys makes for an atmosphere of contemplation and nostalgia; we feel almost transported back to another time.

The rest of the space is filled with clever (and somewhat glitchy) machines that print out what you say, as you say it. They even censor swear words, and you can see who’s been having fun trying to get the better of this. On a more serious note, there’s something to be said here for the recording and misrecording of information; it’s also a piece of text art that just works really well within the context provided.

The rest of the commissions are – compared to these stronger pieces – a bit of a damp squib. Sole Resonance, a small soundscape installation around shoemaking, merits a quick glance and that’s it, perhaps because of its odd corner placement between two attention-grabbing performance pieces. Lavender and Shoestring’s Pop Up Launderette is simply pretty window dressing, as is the Interactive Aquarium, which does also have added danger, as it calls for you to frantically wave your arms on the narrow edge of a busy road. Sold as Seen ‘SALE’ signage is clever but nothing new, and the Hoop Coop is more family friendly arts and crafts than visual art.

We think the point is to market Chester as more of an arts friendly town, whilst making good use of some neglected locations. Liverpool’s now defunct Shops Up Front scheme (an initiative enabling artists to access empty shops for short term exhibitions, workshops and art events) breathed new life into an assortment of depressing, negative spaces, and it’s a great shame that the city doesn’t have it any more. Rogues’ Gallery may be a mixed bag in terms of the artwork on offer (we’d like to see the impact of a more ambitious selection process and what could happen on a bigger scale), but what it does do successfully is instill an appreciation of lesser known local territories, and ignite conversation.

Rogues’ Galleries continues until 24th March, various venues, Chester City Centre

Posted on 19/03/2013 by thedoublenegative