Without risk you lose danger, production that’s safely bound in endless perimeters on an endless timescale allows everyone to sit around without fear, without the punch to take chances. The point at where you lose an end, or remove the real life precarity becomes the point where you lose a focus, narratives slip out of people’s hands…something which has been sliding into the ethos of certain cultural venues in Manchester.
Rife still is the ideals that artists should be provided ‘free’ space in a city purely on the cultural leverage they can bring, leverage that always turns into accidental advertisement for the spaces they reside. Cheer up doll, surely you weren’t blind to your property guardianship, favours like those always feel sour when the actuality of your purpose surfaces. But within this guardianship safety of “5 year plans” and endless space comes endless comfort, a cultural blanket for a hoard of creators and lost is any inherent urgency, spark, attack, you know…pzazz….via this institutional safety. When the support structures do all the ‘grown up’ stuff we can just get on with forgetting about the real world and dither in tepid artistic play, eh? Just because you're offering up free culture doesn't mean you should be fast-tracked to free space, darling.
Federation House for me, before moving back to Manchester, struck me from afar as a newly born star in a artistic landscape that could leave me mildly bored and slightly despairing of the grassroots scene, its scattered and inconsistent production and minimal critical ethos with a seeming lack of any desire to breech the ranks of low level artistic merit. “Move to London if you wanna be seen on the scene kid” was one friends response. So for new space(s) to begin emerging kinda felt exciting, kinda, maybe for a few months at least.
Little has really thrown me off kilter though in Manchester’s art scene thus far and my expectations of a space like Federation House being used as a kind of North-West V22 / Chisenhale where quelled visit by visit [I’m aware the space provided a wider range of layers (studios, workshops etc) than it’s surface public offerings, but the point here is more concerned around its exhibition/project potential and the likes]. Smatterings of stuff have shone out when the spaces are attacked, grappled with and the artworks would begin to register beyond a human scale and more so at an all encompassing architectural level which the building would already drape overbearingly onto its visitors. Shed Show and Hankering for Classification really pushed the space to make you forget its vastness, whilst Liz West’s ‘Your Colour Perception’ fired back at the often eclipsing hollow with something which both sank the room into colour yet upheld its boundaries, features, turning the emotionless architecture into both an actual and psychological experience (or equally some Insta-fodder for the web, which no doubt could have sold the building to potential investors from the ofset...).
But it was apparent without the funding structure, appropriately considered ‘curation’ or the type of artists whom could really drive up the throttle in their practice and run with the space, a lot fell flat, punctured-tyre-sorta-flat. Space used as space cos it’s going free, ya know, free, everyone loves free space in the arts, anxiety-less space, free free free. By stripping back the anxiety stripped back the drive to force something consistently incredible. Ramshackle at times, moderately endearing other and occasionally desperate. The spaces drove every pop-up-fucking-show to its wings, and diminished any geo-cultural variety in the city (something which having lived in South London for a few years is one of the most interesting and intrinsic parts of an electric scene, where the journey, the new contexts and the fresh surroundings become as much a part of the experience as the art/space/people - and at times you could even accommodate/forgive the whack art if the other layers hit the spot).
Aside from it’s failings the place obviously gave a bountiful amount of artists the chance to up their game, produce on a scale rare in the arts and take chances on a broader scope to anything they’ve probably ever attempted (although I’m saying this from a LDN-type perspective having been indoctrinated in the space-less city where the pub back room is the best kinda free space you’re gonna get, and slowly I’ve come to realise Manchester has an abundance of space, it’s just no one’s willing to chase that hard enough). But I think championing what’s already abundantly championed might sideline the point…
V22 Bermondsey became a perfect example of London’s brutality in whitewashing a city with high-end apartments and the like by bringing to its foundations a foundation for artists of all levels, from both an amazingly rich studio complex of diverse practices to an insanely unforgettable, beautifully programmed exhibition space which championed a young emerging London art scene at the hot spots in their career, too early to have been institutionalised yet too grounded in quality, tactility and on the cusp of often something beautiful with works that could really pop in a space like that defines my memory of that place: new practices being thrown at me month after month, from Eddie Peake’s shit hawt, aggressively mesmeric, body abundant performances to entering the vast atrium one blazing hot afternoon and being flung into a sharp black void and then emerge again in front a totemic Elizabeth Price video piece of nullified objects that dripped and spun, of voices and clicks, of a brute slap in the face by the cinematic vision of the banal and static which threw me for six.
Manchester and similar cities are going to find more and more this blanket destruction of its cultural spaces, and will have to bounce back time and again, or more importantly develop models against the developers, where it is sustainability that is the intrinsic factor, and not just space for space’s sake. As much as we can all appreciate Castlefield’s attempts to gain spaces for artists, with it comes an in-built precarity which erodes its justifiability. With the greater risk of a fall comes the greater chance of heightened success, but there’s no risk of injury if everything sticks low to the ground, at the whim of landlords, bubble wrapped from institutions, taking the hand thats dealt and not one thats desired.
This may be a sobering point to remind Castlefield and others that the model of acting as some landlords culturally-based advertisement is neither sustainable nor healthy in an approach to building communities and developing culturally significant and artistically wealthy arenas that could compete with any other cities counterparts (or even Castlefield itself!). Free space doesn’t mean it’s worth the taking, and maybe laying down a cut of your wages on rental and production cost actually makes you think brutally hard about the value of your next 'loosely curated' project supporting an insular circle of practitioners and not really throwing anything new into the mix . Now all that’s left is to see how this displacement of artists and activity will repopulate a city and how we’ll see the emergence of those who really want to sprout beyond the forest floor once everyone’s brought to the ground again.
Maybe no one wants this though??? Maybe what we’re playing with is different ‘visions’, or maybe models are being tossed around to see what sticks, maybe George Osbourne tossing £78m at Granada Studios should keep us quiet, maybe we should be over-awed by HOME or the newly refurbed Whitworth and not challenge them in their programme, scale or ambition, maybe, just maybe…but I s’pose it’s better to speak out that accept the vision you’re handed…and then maybe we can reset the controls for a new type of landscape.