Playlist: Celebrating 300 Years Of The UK’s First Arts Centre, With Sun Ra & More

Sun Ra performing at the Bluecoat in 1990. Courtesy the Bluecoat archive

What do Sun Ra, Sonic Youth, Captain Beefheart, and the Futurama theme tune have in common? They all flavour our new playlist by the Bluecoat’s Artistic Director Bryan Biggs: musically highlighting its radically diverse history, spanning an incredible three-centuries…

With the Bluecoat building celebrating its 300th birthday this year, I’ve relished the opportunity to also mark our achievement as the UK’s first arts centre. There are older visual art venues – in London, for instance, the Royal Academy, or the Whitechapel – but nowhere that has housed such a wide variety of art forms. It was here in Liverpool that the Sandon Studios Society – a group of artists and their supporters – decided in 1907 to create a hub that would combine visual arts, music, theatre, architecture and more all under one roof. They wanted to “stimulate the artistic and intellectual life of Liverpool by bringing together those who are interested in something more than fashion and football and bridge and the share market. We want the amateur musical enthusiast to meet the rising professional and the young composer, the collector of taste to meet the promising artist. We want all the bright, appreciative people to meet the clever and original” (Fanny Calder, founding force of the Sandon, 1912).

The vision for an arts centre was realised in 1927 when the building was bought and a new organisation, the Bluecoat Society of Arts, was established. Significant exhibitions in the building had started in 1911 when Roger Fry’s seminal Post-Impressionist exhibition was hosted, where Picasso and Matisse showed alongside Liverpool artists. And this adventurousness has continued throughout Bluecoat’s history; its programme combining the best Liverpool art with new, national and international developments.

“Music has been a constant thread in our history, with visits by a wealth of composers and musicians, including Stravinsky in 1934 and Sun Ra in 1990″

Music has also been a constant thread in our history, with visits by a wealth of composers and musicians, including Stravinsky in 1934 and jazz legend Sun Ra in 1990 (pictured, top). References to and interaction with music, notably pop music, has been a distinct strand in the visual arts programme, partly due to my own interests and vinyl collecting obsession!

For our anniversary year, we’ve planned 300 days of celebration, running until 30 November. The year started with an exhibition echoing the idea of Bluecoat as a place where the “avant-garde meets the village hall”: Public View (4 Feb-23 Apr) brought together over 100 artists whom we have worked with over a very exciting 50-year period. More major exhibitions are in the making, including a solo show by Palestinian artist Larissa Sansour, entitled In the Future, They Ate From the Finest Porcelain (opening this Friday). We currently have a sociologist in residence (Dr Paul Jones from the University of Liverpool), and a major heritage participation project, My Bluecoat, has begun to digitise archives relating to the building and its history, available to the public online.

“Perhaps Yoko found a ready audience for this participative performance in Liverpool due to the pioneering work of Adrian Henri”

I’d like to start my playlist with Joni Mitchell’s The Gallery, from her second LP Clouds (1969), whose cover, like several others, Joni painted herself. With its opening line – “When I first saw your gallery, I liked the ones of ladies” – the song sets the tone: we have consistently shown female artists throughout our history, including Janet Hodgson, Lesley Sanderson, Sonia Boyce and Nina Edge. A third of the artists who exhibited in Public View were female; we were aiming for 50%, however in the 1960s and 70s the programme was far more male-dominated.

Yoko Ono performing at the Bluecoat in 1967. Courtesy the Bluecoat archive

Yoko Ono performed here in 1967 (pictured, above) in what she preferred to call an “event” rather than a happening. Perhaps she found a ready audience for this participative performance in Liverpool due to the pioneering work of Adrian Henri, who presented the UK’s first multi-media events like this in Liverpool in the early 1960s. Known for his poetry – Bluecoat is hosting The Children of Albion (16 Jun), part of a programme marking 50 years since publication of The Mersey Sound collection of Liverpool poets Henry, Roger McGough and Brian Patten – he was also a painter and musician. He fronted the poetry-rock group Liverpool Scene, who were hugely popular on the British underground live music scene, supporting Led Zeppelin and Bob Dylan. Side one of the group’s final LP, St. Adrian Co. Broadway & 3rd, featured Made in USA; perhaps their most successful fusion of spoken word and jazz/rock.

“The film places the Lone Barefoot Pilgrim in an early 1970s Afrofuturist production, Space is the Place, featuring jazz legend Sun Ra”

Sean Halligan’s tremendous sequence of 300 archive photos, entitled Bluecoat Circumstantia, was selected by the artist from the past three decades, and reveals hidden aspects of the life of the building, its changing spaces and some of its live events. Included is an image of the great Malian musician Ali Farka Touré performing at a time when African and world music was a prominent part of Bluecoat’s offer. I have chosen opening track Heygana from his acclaimed 1992 album, The River.

Reflecting on Bluecoat’s most memorable commissions, I’m reminded of David Blandy’s film for the 2008 Liverpool Biennial. In it David, as his alter ego the Lone Barefoot Pilgrim, is searching for another fictitious character, Mingering Mike, the 1970s’ invention of an African American soul music fan whose homemade records (made of cardboard, housed in hand-painted sleeves) were “re-discovered” by crate diggers decades later. The film places the Lone Barefoot Pilgrim in early 1970s Afrofuturist production, Space is the Place, featuring the aforementioned Sun Ra & his Arkestra, to create a fiction within a fiction in search of a fiction! And so here’s the band playing Door Of The Cosmos.

courtesy the Bluecoat archive

Also in the gallery for Public View were John Hyatt’s grid of nine portraits from 1986 commission project Connections that linked the cities of Liverpool and Manchester. John, who also had a solo show here, Art in Chaos (1990), is one of the few artists who has managed to maintain a parallel career in art and in music (having a significant impact in both), as a member of post-punk band The Three Johns. His recent exhibition at Home in Manchester incorporated Club Big, a nightclub that came to life every Friday with a fabulously eclectic line up. The Three Johns performed in the opening week of Public View. What could be more pertinent today than their rousing Death of the European (1985)?

“Arguably the first show to present the new wave of graphics accompanying the music landscape opened up by punk”

My next choice is prompted by American artist Tony Oursler, who exhibited at Bluecoat in the Video Positive festival (1991), and two years later had a solo show here organised by FACT (then Moviola) entitled …Cigarettes, Flowers and Videotape. On Tony’s second visit I introduced him to Liverpool-based artist Jamie Reid, whose iconic graphics for the Sex Pistols Tony greatly admired. With musical beginnings himself, playing in LA band the Poetics with fellow student Mike Kelley, Tony became a collaborator with David Bowie, and produced a video for his 2013 single Where Are We Now? But I have selected Sonic Youth’s Tunic (Song for Karen): Tony’s video for this was shown at Bluecoat in 1993.

Original Pierre Henry invite from 1967. Courtesy the Bluecoat archive

I curated the exhibition Cover Versions together with Chris Kennedy in 1981. Arguably the first show to present the new wave of graphics accompanying the music landscape opened up by punk, it included record sleeves, posters and other ephemera from labels like Stiff, Fast and Factory. One of the designers, Malcolm Garrett, created a distinctive identity for fellow Mancunians Buzzcocks (pictured, above), one that was used consistently on all their releases, and was followed by similarly memorable brands for Magazine, Simple Minds, Duran Duran and others. The posters included here are early screenprints for Buzzcocks, while the track selected is the later A Different Kind Of Tension (1979) from the LP of the same name. Malcolm subsequently designed several catalogues and posters for Bluecoat exhibitions, including our drawing retrospective of British pop artist Derek Boshier (also in Public View, and also a David Bowie collaborator, with his design for the LP Lodger).

“French composer Pierre Henry’s un-performed electronic mass for the opening of the Metropolitan Cathedral in 1967 will be presented as a live mix”

Now, we’re nearing the end of my musical journey. To point you in the direction of upcoming sonic happenings during Bluecoat’s birthday year, I’ve chosen two more tracks. French composer Pierre Henry’s un-performed electronic mass for the opening of the Metropolitan Cathedral in 1967 (pictured) will be presented as a live mix (13 May) involving 40 speakers. His much-sampled Psyché Rock (does it remind you of the Futurama opening credits by any chance?) is quite different to this piece, but is a great tune from this pioneer of musique concrète.

And we are hosting a Captain Beefheart event (Nov) with curator Kyle Percy and poet Chris McCabe, 45 years after the cult Californian musician had his first ever painting exhibition at Bluecoat. Watch this space for what promises to be another very special occasion. There is a photo of Beefheart standing outside our building in 1972 in our current heritage display next to the gallery. Until we can release more details, listen to his 1967 track Electricity.

Bryan Biggs   

Don’t miss Palestinian artist Larissa Sansour’s major solo exhibition In the Future, They Ate From the Finest Porcelain, alongside a solo show of choreographed light and sound by Louisa Martin entitled Proxy: 5.30—11pm on Friday 5 May 2017. See both until 24 June 2017

See the Bluecoat’s full 300th anniversary exhibition and events programme here

Images, from top: Sun Ra performing at the Bluecoat in 1990. Yoko Ono performing at the Bluecoat in 1967. Buzzcocks’ posters designed by Malcolm Garrett, as featured in Cover Versions exhibition in 1981. Pierre Henry invite for his performance on 13 May 2017. All images courtesy the Bluecoat and artists

Posted on 02/05/2017 by thedoublenegative