Matt Retallick Research Questionnaire 4: Alan Dunn

Name:             Alan Dunn       

Location:         Wirral

Organisation:  FOUR WORDS/cantaudio/Alternator Studio & Project Space (Birkenhead)



1. What is your relationship to Merseyside? 

I was born in Glasgow but moved to Liverpool in 1995 with artist Brigitte Jurack for work reasons. I grew up listening to, watching and reading about Liverpool (mostly the football and music) so jumped at the chance of living in the region. Despite a few long-term projects in other cities, we’ve stayed here and made it our home. I feel very privileged to be connected with the area – it’s a port city of course and I think very good at accepting people who are willing to give a lot back. 

2. How does Merseyside impact or shape your practice? 

In those very first few months, we met people at the Bluecoat, including Bryan Biggs, and loads of artists involved in Visionfest which was the annual pre-Biennial festival. The city’s creative scene was immediately apparent and what particularly appealed to me was the blurring of artists who were in bands, poets talking about football, writers making sound art and loads of people setting up new initiatives and projects outwith institutions, all of which reminded me of Glasgow of the late 80s/early 90s. 

Thematically, lots of my projects have since been about or taken place in and around unusual regional themes or spots, such as the Soundtrack for a Mersey Tunnel or the PRIVATE event at the top of the Radio City Tower. I’ve put billboards all over the city from the huge Media Wall opposite Lime Street to flyposters announcing a project that saw street musicians tour the city centre in a horse and cart. I’ve worked on projects around Malcolm Lowry, Wayne Rooney, Mo & Sadio, Williamson Tunnels and was privileged to work on the tenantspinproject at FACT for many years, co-creating with city-wide high-rise tenants and loads of amazing projects including Philosophy in Pubs, Hillsborough Justice Campaign, the Grand National and some of the city’s skateboarders, auctioneers, mystics, lookalikes, spoon players, detectives, ethical bankers, communists and choir singers. 

3. What’s are the positives and negatives of living and working in Merseyside? 

Following on from my previous answer, the positives for me are the people who are based here and continue to have influence, share stuff and do projects – far too many to mention but some who come to mind include Jeff Young, Jayne Casey, Philip Jeck, Nina Edge, Neil Morrin, Singh Twins, Steve & Phaedra Hardstaff, Joe Cotgrave, Malik Al Nasir, David Jacques, Ex-Easter Island Head, MAKE, Fabric District, Paul Simpson, Mike Carney, Prison Behaviour, the RedmenTV,  Will Sergeant, Colin Fallows, the Bluecoat engagement projects, a.P.A.t.T., Paul Sullivan & Static Gallery, Joan Burnett, Organ Freeman, DIG, Lizzie Nunnery & Vidar Norheim, Metal, Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus, Pete Clarke, Mark McNulty, Helen Tookey, John Hyatt, Roger Cliffe-Thompson and the team at Mariners’ Park, Mary Prestidge, Probe, Edge Hill Arts Centre, Yorkie, Roger Hill & PMS Radio, Forest Swords, Sam Wiehl, Jan Williams, John Hodgkinson, Frances Disley, Williamson Art Gallery, News From Nowhere, Cathy Butterworth, Jamie Webster and so on – I think they have all shared and made incredible things happen in the region and I have a real sense there’s just as many if not more I haven’t mentioned or even met yet. And that’s not forgetting Jurgen, Bobby, Virgil, Trent and Robbo.  

I think as practicing artists, we know how to overcome negatives and obstacles. Occasionally I’ve had to outsource good quality printing, vinyl pressing or other processes beyond the region and it would be great to have more provision and choice locally. That said, from our base on Wirral we’re really well served by surviving industries – real companies making real things and offering real services. Some other negatives are not specific to this region but in the early days, the Arts Council had offices and a real presence in this and many other cities which allowed healthy dialogues and a more transparent situation in regard to what can or should or might get support, and what form that support might take at different stages. 

4. What does independence / being independent mean to you? 

For me it’s just part of a balance – I work with national agencies and am a Reader in Art & Design at a University, but I’m also allowed a degree of being proactive. By that I mean I can recognise an opportunity to develop a piece of work (rather than being invited or commissioned) and I can work at putting together a model – funding, collaborators, dissemination – that enables exciting new work to emerge where and when the artists decide. 

5. Is Merseyside a good place to be independent? 

Again, I think it is all relative. I love Bold Street or Oxton Road as havens of small independent businesses, but I also enjoy those parts of town that are more anonymous and served by established companies. I have always loved ‘indie’ music and everything it stands for, but my collection is also peppered with major label releases. I think being independent in any city is strengthened by clear and easy to access funding and/or buildings and lots of inter-generational mixing to share examples of projects that have come before and to offer support. This is something subtle and informal that, for example, private views at the Bluecoat do really well.   

6. What are your favourite examples of independence / the independent in Merseyside?

I’ve already mentioned Bold Street and Oxton Road and I think back to the first independent Biennial in 1999 which was named TRACEY in response/reaction/relation to the ‘official’ Biennial titled TRACE. I recall a real buzz around the city, a kind of competitive element with rumours that TRACEY was going to be wilder, bolder and more inclusive than TRACE – I enjoyed that healthy relationship and I think it echoed in 2002 and 2004 again and I feel senses of that again this year. 

7. What is your favourite cultural organisation in Merseyside and why?

Building again on previous thoughts, I have to say Bluecoat as a hub for meeting people and as a support network. I have been involved with Bluecoat as exhibiting artist and have delivered engagement workshops, published, given talks, released records, ran tours, written texts, helped with funding and been (Football Artist) in residence – it’s so valuable to have these different evolving and maturing relationships and I know many artists in the city have had the same with Bluecoat. Digging deeper, Bluecoat has always consulted artists about their views whilst making us feel part of a family/programme that may also include singing lessons, record fairs, bookshops, printing, dining, gigs etc.  

8. What is your favourite place in Merseyside and why? 

My highly biased answer is RAY + JULIE, the two chairs that Brigitte and I designed and installed at the bottom end of London Road back in 1995 when we first arrived, as part of Visionfest. Only intended to last 6 months until London Road was developed with trams and tree-lined boulevards, the sculpture remains today. The two chairs have been kid of adopted by the city (similar to the way we two artists have?) and are now literally part of the furniture. Sometimes they are in the Guardian or Everyman Theatre and other times phoning the Council to get the ground cleaned up … they are 2 minutes from Lime Street yet represent a Liverpool from the mid-90s with, I think, a humanity, edge, frailty and peculiar joy. To sit by RAY + JULIE is like reading Jeff Young’s Ghost Town (faded cinema, Bob Dylan, Roxy Music) but also just to sit still in a vacant plot slap bang in the middle of a major city, taking stock but also making plans for the next project. 

9. If you could make Merseyside different, what would you change, and why? 

In no particular order, returning to less expensive drinks at openings, repairing the Voice-O- Graph in the Jackaranda (apologies if this has been done!), changing Liverpool’s results between December 2020-February 2021, reopening and renovating Fort Perch Rock, bringing back the façade of The Futurist, putting the main Dock Road underground (as they did in Dusseldorf) to create a green and quiet meander from city to river, reinstating some Arts Council offices and a bridge over the Mersey (need to ask the Admiralty about that one).  

10. Describe Merseyside to someone who’s never visited

Take the train to Lime Street or fly to John Lennon Airport.