Merseyside: State of Independence? – Matt Retallick

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Merseyside: State of Independence?
Matt Retallick 

This short piece is written at the end of Independents Biennial ’21. It does not aim to provide answers but should instead be read as a means for questioning and to promote wider discussion. This text is based on both my own observations and questionnaire responses from members of Merseyside’s cultural community. It is an attempt to understand what independence / the independent means to them. Just as we have for the last eleven weeks, and with discussion in mind, the text is annotated by my fellow Artist’s Hosts. 

For Independents Biennial ’21, I’ve been exploring the cultural landscape of Merseyside. What does independence mean for artists and cultural venues? How do we define the independent? Where can we find it? 

I moved to Liverpool at the end of October 2020, and although we had the temporary relaxation of Tier 2, I still feel as if I am yet to truly arrive. As someone who ordinarily would spend free time visiting galleries, museums, cinemas and theatres, my sense of identity has taken a severe knock. It’s the same for many of us. So, when shutters were closed for an unspecified period, and our entire lives moved online it seemed there was nothing to do but walk. Sometimes these walks seemed meaningless, at times even frustrating, but Independents Biennial gave them a new purpose. I’ve used walking as a research methodology for many years; I am a flâneur, someone who walks to understand a given location, joining the dots, understanding through observation. 

As a prompt, I sent questionnaires to artists, practitioners, and curators living and working across Merseyside, and their responses shaped my routes. Of course, COVID-19 restrictions meant this approach looked very different. I could only travel as far as my feet would take me, and with almost everything closed, I had no choice but to approach my questions using what I could observe on the surface. As I don’t drive, most of my walking routes were within seagull flight of the St John’s Tower; but as questionnaire responses came through, I could begin to build a picture of what was important to a sense of independence in the city, and beyond. 

One of my questions asked about the positives of living and working in Merseyside, and almost everyone, without hesitation, said the people. This probably can’t be said for many places, and it’s something I continue to hear repeatedly. Harriet Burns questioned the construction of the Scouser, positing that this as a collective identity that was forged by constant political neglect, something that was built-up out of necessity. In-line with this, the tribe or collective is something I am particularly interested in when questioning the independent. For example, so many responses mentioned Liverpool’s Bold Street or Lark Lane, some noting particulars, such as News From Nowhere, or the bombed-out-church. As I walked past the church, down Bold Street and into town, I wondered if a sense of independence is in-fact about finding your tribe? The church steps are dotted with people sitting, eating, reading, chatting, it’s a meeting place for many. Bold Street, even during lockdown is bustling, independent businesses flanking either side, the same goes for Lark Lane. If, by definition, independence is ‘being free from outside control or subject to another’s authority’, do any of these examples match this description?

Instead, it seems to me that Liverpool’s conception of independence is linked to the collective, and the idea of a togetherness. The businesses of Bold Street and Lark Lane are stronger in numbers, the steps of the bombed-out-church are constantly populated. As I walk further into town, I noticed an amusing example of togetherness in a gift-shop window, a replica purple bin for your desk. Why would anyone want this? It is of course a territorial marker, a symbol. We’ve got a purple bin, so we belong to something bigger, to Liverpool, set apart from other places, but together as a city. Patrick Kirk-Smith, however, explained that a ‘myth of connectedness’ was, for him, one of the negatives of Merseyside, and linked this to a ‘lens of Scouse culture’. So, according to questionnaire responses, how do cultural organisations play their part in this connectedness? I asked people to give examples. This question, it seems, was one of the hardest to answer, but this difficulty is probably quite telling. 

Although Bluecoat, Dead Pigeon Gallery, Writing on the Wall, OUTPUT Gallery, FACT, and the Liverpool Central Library were mentioned, amongst many others, it wasn’t due to their individuality, but instead, their place as part of a collective cultural fabric. I refer again to Patrick’s lens of Scouse culture, and I’m sure that the myth he questioned is due to an external perception of what culture is in Merseyside. 

Culture in Liverpool, for example, is probably known to most for Giants and Rivers of Light before it’s known for Liverpool Biennial, or even the Tate. The former examples are where the money goes, and empty, unchallenging, costly mass spectacle becomes a worrying bar of ambition. So, maybe, therefore the projection of a connected cultural fabric of galleries and artists exists as a reaction to this, a tribe to counter overarching authority, the idea of strength in numbers. As Montse Mosquera mentions, culture in Merseyside should instead be driven by its artists, and therefore more power needs to be afforded to them. How many artists could the money ploughed into mass spectacles assist instead? 

Montse’s response gets me thinking about artist studio complexes and collectives. What is it like to be a studio holder? Does this offer a sense of community? Or does an artist work in isolation under a branded umbrella? Interestingly, artist studios received the least mentions in the questionnaire responses. Pubs, bars, and cafes got more acknowledgement. So, is ‘the independent’ something we must always share with others? Artist’s Studios require permission to enter, prior arrangement, but pubs and bars are open to all (lockdown aside). It’s also worth noting that the cultural organisations listed in responses above have free admission. I suppose, they are again places to be seen, places to exercise independence collectively. Artist’s studios, in contrast, do not offer this, they are mostly closed, and our relationship to, and perception of them is entirely different. 

Freedom certainly applies to our green spaces, and my walks took me through Princes Park into Sefton Park, from Cathedral Gardens to Abercromby Square, from Calderstones and beyond. These parks allowed valuable and much needed headspace for me during lockdown, but they also became one of the only places we could be seen together. Luke Skiffington sees this abundance of green space as a missed opportunity, something which should be used as a platform for sculpture, performance, or film screenings. This, with all the necessary social distancing would have been particularly welcome over the last year. Liverpool’s docklands, in the same way, also offered valuable headspace. Not just the tourist-tidiness of Albert Dock, but the unglamourous industrial authenticity that stretches into Bootle. Albert Dock is another location that is mentioned repeatedly in the questionnaire responses, and I was initially surprised by this. Elizabeth Challinor, however, offers a reason, it’s a place preserved, it hasn’t suffered the indignity of being turned into student accommodation with the bland facades to match. Yes, there’s a picture of Paul O’Grady’s face made from jelly beans, but there are also world-class museums and galleries, alongside independent businesses, and great views across the Mersey. It reminds Jo Mary Watson of her native Hamburg, the docklands there, just as here, are a symbol of the city, and as a result they are a focus point, they bring people together. Albert Dock, whatever your opinion, has become an indelible motif of the city. Elizabeth isn’t the only person to mention the blight of student accommodation, Sorrell Kerrison mentions this as a real threat to Liverpool’s people and their creativity, where ‘culture is built, and then large companies come and knock it down’. So, if the constant construction of student accommodation is a threat to Liverpool’s sense of independence and cultural landscape, what positive changes should be made? 

Grace Collins suggests that the larger institutions must do more to work with artists locally, and this should be at the heart of their programming. Artists should also have the opportunity to work more cohesively across Merseyside’s boundaries. This concern is something that Sarah Gilman shares, and explains that it should be easier for artists to connect and work together across the region. This certainly links back to Patrick’s myth of connectedness, but are larger institutions the key to enabling and facilitating this? What are the existing boundaries? Why do many artists feel this isn’t happening? 

In my recent walks around Liverpool, and in conversations about Merseyside more widely, I now see the cultural landscape as increasingly nuanced and complex. Before I moved here, my perception of the region was different, possibly blinkered. Although I was a frequent visitor, I was here for specific exhibitions, art events, theatre shows, performances, and it seemed to me that Liverpool championed the independent. However, I now feel the reverse is true, that the independents champion Liverpool, and importantly each other. 

Independence is something I still believe defines Merseyside, but this is not about individuality, but instead working, or striving to work together. The questionnaire responses offer suggestions of how to strengthen this, how to join dots, how to make connectedness less of a myth, but a powerful backbone of culture in the region. This short text, as I explained at the start, is not about trying to give answers, but instead to take a temperature. I am incredibly grateful to the team at IB21 for allowing the opportunity, time, and space to explore my new region, and I look forward to visiting much more of it now that restrictions are easing. From Birkenhead’s Oxton Road as highlighted by Alan Dunn, to World of Glass in St Helens recommended by Emmer Winder, I’m looking forward to further explorations into what independence means to Merseyside. I thank everyone who took part in this project, for their time and fascinating insights. All the questionnaire responses are available to read on the IB21 website at: independentsbiennial.com/artists/artist-hosts/matt-retallick/

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