Friday, 25 February 2011

I go to build in each corner

a map of you is a poetic and visual guide to Manchester as seen through the eyes of homeless and vulnerably housed people. Below is our first poem:

I was born here in
are the reason I remain
push you or
pull you in
otherwise I'd be out of here like a
bullet from a gun
the historical a changing face
a face, not just a construction
in Manchester you're back
in the 1800s
the British Rail toilets
a church a hidden gem
it's timeless the statues come at you
off Albert Square, back to a godly age

renaissance motivating the statues
it's not just family it's roots
could be your dog or
the John Rylands Library
grotesques on the outside
the Xmas market looking up
the cathedral brick-by-brick brought
during its heyday
the Salford Quays the shipyards
the canals of
the waterways of 
Manchester I go to build all time
change change change
more new new new new
the bomb that devastated
I go to build in each corner
brilliant shops of the best sort
this is where the money is Piccadilly Gardens
Manchester Royal
the zephyr cars the flowergarden a place to sit
a walkway from Victorian times
remember back in the day
everyone would just chip in
food after food on the tables

the Victorians
the Victory Party
lost in
Heaton Park
the boating lake when I was a kid
the little museum
Belle Vue the circus
the dinosaur speedway
tunnels going under
the speedway you could feel the gravel hitting you
from two miles away
I guarantee
Sale Waterpark dead quiet
an underground market that sells everything in memory
the Three Peaks I love it but I'm
scared of heights
the place I sit back and enjoy is the sky bar
you can see a distance
I'm waiting for the April showers to come
for the lightning
watch the lightning over the Peak District
flashing down the hillside
striking down the hillside.

Group poem
Booth Centre
22nd Feb 2011

For more photos of artwork, and text/poems, please visit

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

a map of you - day one

Starting anew is always a push and this is very new territory for us, our first project with homeless and vulnerably housed people. We're asking the folk we work with to make work about Manchester as they encounter it and to inscribe postcards with their experiences and visions. We're constructing a kind of tourist Manchester, but seen from the point-of-view of homeless people.

Manchester Art Gallery postcard, customised by David

9.30am sitting at a little metal table with vendors E and K in the Big Issue foyer. Vendors come in here from 8am onwards, picking up copies of the magazine to sell and then hurrying off to their pitches to catch the rush-hour customers. There's a breakfast club, tea from an urn and toast served by the goodhearted D, a godsend if you've been freezing on the streets of Manchester rough sleeping. Most people need to sell so the respite from cold and wet is brief, then they're on the street again.

I have a memory flash of the scout camps of childhood, the smell of outdoors on damp clothes, the chill and the welcome burn of tea in my throat. But here faces are scoured of colour, many are scooped to an astonishing thinness. Clothes are over-big and worn like a shell, a dwelling.

E and K talk to us with great openness. They describe years spent in hostels, the vertigo that comes when you fall through the gaps in the safety net, the struggle to swim back up to the surface, to be part of society not apart. The difficulty of finding peace, privacy and the great impossible longing for home, whatever form it might take. As we talked, Lois and I made notes and the notes were transcribed by the participants, or ourselves onto the postcards.

The method used for the cards was devised by the artist Anneke Kuipers, who worked with us on our book PATIENCE. A tourist postcard has the main feature of the view cut out of the picture on its front and stuck to the back. Text is written into the white space on the front and around the displaced image on the back. The pieces were quick to make on this cold morning (Lois had prepped them earlier) and intriguing enough to hook people's interest.

The conversations flowered quickly and then were gone, but our little stack of poem/postcards grew at a healthy rate. A vendor jotted a memorium for a friend who'd just died. We had a struggled conversation with Roma vendors that ended in laughter and two Roma words for me – vacance (holiday) and hostol (you can perhaps guess that one). Working alongside us was Gemma, a Sociology student working as a volunteer at The Big Issue, with a big line in friendliness and kindness and hot tea.

The afternoon session at The Booth Centre was a longer, structured workshop and became an exploration of both the familiar an the strange. We discussed Manchester and the layers of memory living in it for all of us. As the group talked, revisiting these familiar places , a togetherness was conjured up. But it was punctured with little shafts of scare. At the centre of the discussion was R who has lived his (long) life in this city and sleeps rough here. He knows the tunnels, the crypts, the air-raid shelters, the forgotten places, the quiet. We made a group recollection of the city and then more postcards, these funnier and harsher, as the group gained confidence. Then some one-to-one individual pieces, exploring vulnerabilities. And suddenly the end was upon us, as they say.

'I'm exhausted,' said D. 'And I've not moved from this seat.' There was a round of applause for the work and the spell was over. 'Back to out there,' said D. 'It's scary y'know.'

a map of you is supported by Arts Council England and Bury MBC, and has The Big Issue, The Text Festival and The Booth Centre as partners.

Monday, 21 February 2011

Used to say I’m running away but I never actually got round to it

Ryan's seated self portrait

The installation of the Bubble Project pieces was both a change up in gear and a race towards the final conclusion of the work. Installation is always a process in which the artist has one eye on the clock and this was no exception. We had only two hours with the group to decide where the pieces would work best in our chosen location the indoor market. Lois, Derek and I then had a further four hours to wallpaper the life-size pieces in position, fine-tune the placement of the training shoes and postcards and find a home for the bottled poems.

The rush is sometimes a valuable one because it cuts out dithering and requires intense focus. Our group all rose to the occasion, scouting out the best sites for their work, helping to blutac them on the walls, shuffling pieces around several locations until the best height and angle was found. Finding the right space, the right moment for a piece is as fine a craft as the making and can transform work utterly, for good or ill.

Ryan's action man' self portrait

Ryan was as ever afire with ideas and enthusiasm – he steered the placing of several pieces, cackling gleefully as he did so. 

Luke's Fireheart

Luke dived deep into the whole process, working with Derek to build up bits of bric-a-brac around his ‘portrait’, choreographing the space to great effect. 

Lauren's Egyptian self

Lauren was decisive and direct, as she is. 

Len's jumping self portrait

Len found an excellent point for his basketballing self to leap into space. Finally, Kitty positioned her pair of contrasting ‘selves’ so that they linked but weren’t visible at the same time – one introvert, one extrovert. She also tried out arrangements of the training shoe text piece and the star poems. The works became powerful in the environment, it was a living frame for them. As we glued and cut and pinned, the excitement ran between us.

Kitty's Rabbit brain

The fact that the market is a hangout for local teenagers put the group on their mettle – they seemed determined to make the best of their pieces, especially when being judged by their (possibly unforgiving) peers.  The acid test of public reaction can sting, but it also brings insight – the perspective of others. As it happened, all of the teenagers we spoke to were enthusiastic about the work (‘Good things aren’t they?’). The pieces ask questions about how we care for each other as humans – and if the cost of caring is the freedom to be yourself. And freedom is a favourite subject for all adolescents everywhere.

Lauren and Lauren's falling figure

A particular hit with the audience were the training shoes – half-drawn, half-written customised trainers. On one set of training shoes is written the title of the show, a passing comment made by one of the young carers -  ‘Used to say I’m running away but I never actually got round to it.’ I’m so glad that the group stayed the distance with us to make this work. I felt burstingly proud of them. When we said our farewells, it seemed impossible to me to explain how far I thought they’d travelled on this creative adventure with us – and how much inventiveness, humour, courage and sweetness they’ve shared.  

used to say I'm running away but I never actually got round to it
More photos at

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Week 5: I'm free to run

 life size portrait (detail) Kitty

Saturday's workshop was a ball of energy and excitement, with a tinge of sadness dancing at the edges. It was our last making session.

It feels sad partly because we've grown attached to this little gang and have started to know them and their lives more deeply; it's also sad because at precisely this point their making has become strongest. They've relaxed into the process and now the work they're producing mirrors their own situation, giving them a chance to know themselves (or potential selves) in a different way. It is a very powerful psychological tool to be able to rewrite the script we've been handed in life. Making art allows people to dream different versions of 'me', even contradictory versions. For someone who has a family role as demanding as 'carer' it can be valuable to try on other personae, to look at the unacknowledged creatures under the surface.

We started the day writing creature specimen poems for jam jars, to be placed around the museum. I'd prepped 'PICK ME UP' stencils for the labels, cleaned and scraped a multitude of jam jars, so felt happy to sit back and let Phil lead on the poetry making. We took inspiration from the wonderful, lugubrious cases of taxidermy that surrounded us in the art room and pondered
what creature you would place in a container? The group conjured up a delightful mix of snakes and rabbits to spiders, through to flesh-hungry zombies. Phil asked a series of questions about these creatures, so that they described bottled emotions and finally morphed into poems.
Rabbits when they die
The young carers, not content with simply stencilling the words Pick Me Up on their labels, added their own instructions, warnings, sly jokes. For some of the children a highlight of the project was finding a location for these poem/artworks amongst the museum displays.  'It's a real privilege to go inside the display cases'  Lauren explained

Lauren behind the scenes in the museum
They took their time considering choices of location for their artwork, Luke's poem included a zombie curse and a fear spider, so it seemed appropriate to leave his jar in the poison collection.

Luke's poison 
Kitty had more difficulty finding a location for her piece, so I was very pleased when she decided on placing it amongst the wonderfully eccentric Victorian 'skit on cockfighting'. Kitty's sweet little homage to rabbits and the idea of home comfort counterpointed the mock courtroom of adversarial animals.
Kitty's homeloving rabbit amongst ' a skit on cockfighting
Luke continued to check on his piece 'a circle can be anything' to view the public's contributions. He also brought in a fantastic illustrated newsletter that he had made, and took time out from making art and writing poetry to interview Derek Dick the Museums Operations and Development Manager. Its been fantastic to see him grow in confidence and to take the initiative to create interactive artworks for the museum and start on a journalistic carer! 

Luke's interactive artwork
We finished more of the large scale self portraits,  with Ryan and Kitty completing their second piece of work. Each piece is unique to the individual making it, a reflection of their own story. 

Len with his portrait
The customised trainers were completed with a circular text piece 'used to say I'm running away but never actually got round to it', a comment made by one of the group with one word on each shoe, we have tried a few layout ideas, but final decisions will be made on Friday at the exhibition space.

For more photos, please visit our portfolio site.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

week 4 Special Offers

Special Offer Poems
This week Phil started the session working on Special Offer poems, short concrete poems in the shape of stars, reflecting the young peoples wishes. Some funny, some touching, they gently reveal a little about the authors. You can see examples at and

It's beginning to feel more like an art foundation course, rather than a usual community art project- the time we have been given to get to know the children- and visa versa. This is the fantastic opportunity that five hours spent in one day, and 5 weeks gives you. The depth of the work, the time spent on one piece- the large self portraits worked on over a series of weeks- a luxury that schools would never be given.

Len Stenciling

Each young person bringing their own personality and interests to the work. There's lots of laughter and tons of energy, its a joy when we introduce an idea and they take it and run with it in their own direction, bringing their own self to it.

Then out of the blue come moments that reveal another side of being a young person, and a young carer. The anguish, the frustrations, the anger, the sadness, reflected directly in the words below scratched into the paper. This young artist, told us the previous week that she used art making directly as a release for the tensions and anger of being a young carer- running to her room and scribbling into paper.

 'Help Me'

We had a bit of a break through with the trainers. I had the idea that the stenciled words would look great on them, layering with their handwriting. Thanks to Luke we had our first example. Next week we are going to encourage a whole poem written over a collection- one word or line on each shoe.

Luke's trainer, 'Tiring'

As the group were leaving, I asked 'will we see you next week?' Ryan loudly exclaimed, 'You're not getting rid of us now!' 

Ryan's stencilled self portrait

These workshops seems to be getting the thumbs up.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Beijing Traffic

From China Journal January 2010

Is the idea of the self (itself) different in China? Maybe it's just that people are un/important in a different way. In the West, we make a great show of individuality, but the truth is that we dismiss the voices of older people, or the Roma, or the homeless, or the ordinary, or the suburban middle-agers, or the decried pram-face mums, or the ANYBODY. At best the Big Society rots down in the compost of a million blogs, like this one. Democratic people don't really have a swig of 15 minutes of glory, we are consecrated only by money and fame – the modcons of power.

Mao didn't bother fiddling around with subtle displacement activities. Such a liberal thing as an Individual was simply disallowed in his reign and in that of previous autocrats. So how does that affect people here? There are little enactments of difference scattered through my time in China and Beijing traffic is the latest.

The traffic in this city is, at first seeing, a hopeless chaos, a tangle of cars, trucks, bikes, pedestrians, police, all sharing too few lanes and in many cases the wrong side of the road. It's like a pile-up that still manages to keep moving. Pedestrians run at crossing points flocked together for safety, while cars jump the red and swerve through people gaps. Drivers hack bumper-to-bumper, leaning on horns and short-cutting outrageously, sliding between one another.

Is it because there's a kind of deep carelessness? Maybe on some level, people don't mind if either they, or others, are damaged. Are they depressed? I think of buildings in Chongqing being demolished by gangs of men with sledgehammers, hundreds of feet up in the air, smashing at the bricks under their feet that hold them aloft. They work with this level of danger because they've no choice; look in their faces, they're tired and desperate. But perhaps there are other reasons too, other ideas of what tots up human value.

Still the traffic comes, knifing thru the snow. Despite the melee, we see very few accidents. Along with the apparent self-harm element is a kind of beautific calm. Nobody displays anger. And on closer looking, there's a shared awareness of the whole traffic mass. Cars swift around one another, avoiding the bloody mind's-eye collisions that I see everywhere. Drivers honk, indicate profusely, shout, gesticulate – they are simply letting each other know 'I'm here' - driving is a negotiation between everyone, not a race of competitors. It's a subtle plot twist that sounds like bullshit but is in fact crucial to the outcome. So, driving in Beijing is today's metaphor. It looks and is messy but it's a group activity and road rage is impossible in the midst of this vehicle juggling, you'd be the first victim.

(When we get back to the UK, Julia will intone: “I'm driving Chinese,” if the going gets stressy and she wants to talk herself into relaxing.)

A bit of backstory from the late 1970s: the Misty Poets tried to fuse collectivism with a more western individuality. There was a short springtime and then the ubiquitous crackdown, regular as seasonal change. Which is where Beijing road rage actually makes its entrance, in tanks. Meantime, Julia and I watch the careening cars for a safe moment to cross the road and I wonder what our lives are worth on this big abacus.

To reveal and to hide - Young Carers (interview)

Interview with Rosemary Coleman, Acting Executive Officer, Warrington Young Carers

You learn yourself through art. Children need to have art – it's self-expression.

Being a young carer makes you grow up very quickly, I've seen it in others many times and in myself. I was a young carer, my mum had agoraphobia. I've known the kids in this group of young carers ever since they were tiny, I've seen them change. How they change depends on the individual child and on the parents too. It's not just the physical job that they have to do that affects them, it's the mental pressure. That's the important part – the self.

Getting yourself up and your kids ready up and out for school everyday, it's taken for granted that we do this as adults. But I knew a little girl whose mum had started to black out – and she looked after her mum when she lost consciousness. She'd call her gran first and then the ambulance if it was needed. Can you imagine how her mind worked? The stress?

One in six kids is a young carer, it's estimated. There are seven million adult carers – but young carers are more difficult to count. They don't identify themselves because they're afraid of going into care. I ask them what's their biggest fear and they always say: “They'll take me away.” The mental health aspect of it isn't looked at. They don't think about it because it's their life. They're kids, they don't know how to reflect on it. But as a society we should try to understand.

I went to a meeting recently and this smart professional guy was there. He was saying how terrible teenagers are, unwashed and disgusting. Well, I asked him: “Which ones are frightened of saying they're carers? Which ones are signing on because they're young carers and they've no chance to go out and earn?” There are kids who wet their bed because of stress and then wash their own sheets afterwards. Kids who live with the fear of violence because their parents have drug or drink problems. The feeling of fear continues, it follows them. Fear and shame.

I was always frightened because I thought my mother would be taken away. A lot of them feel shame because they're judged by other people. They might not have clean clothes, or the latest gear. It's a pressure to get all the fashionable stuff when you're young, but it's an added pressure if you're a young carer who knows they'll NEVER have it.

The flipside to so-called self-expression through clothes is that these kids get bullied for not having the right trainers. It's an argument for school uniforms for all. Because there's a secret life going on for some kids. If I see a kid who's late for school, I think, “What's your life?” Schools have to take responsibility for this, they can't keep ignoring the problem.

In groups like this they love that finally they’ve found someone who understands. Someone they can talk to, or not as they choose. But in this room they know there’s somebody who is thinking the same things as them. We can also help get buddying started.

In a school they can buddy and support one another against bullying. The major place where the fear and isolation gets in is at school and the schools must take responsibility. Because they are very independent, capable kids, many young carers are in the middle streams at school even when they’re struggling with life. They’re not high achievers, not remedial. These are exactly the kind of kids who get ignored in a school system. They’re seen to be coping and that’s good enough. No, the schools need to change, they need to try to understand.

I knew a six year old whose school kept ringing home and were repeatedly told: “She’s sick, she can’t come to school.” Actually, she was looking after grandma who was very ill, so that the mum could still work. That six-year-old’s education was out the window. The mum and the school mismanaged the situation and it cost that little girl her education.

These are complex young people. Despite problems, many of them love what they do, because they're doing it for mum, dad, brother, sister. Their protectiveness is second to none. And even though they'll dodge questions at school that endanger the family as they see it, they are also very honest. Through listening, I've learnt a lot from this group as they've come to trust me and opened up. What these youngsters have taught me is to speak openly about my own life as an adult. Self-expression again.

Some young carers have a lot of drive because of all the responsibilities they manage. They have the ability to be powerfully independent. And of course they are very good carers. In later life they’ll often take on other caring responsibilities. People can sense it in them, sniff them out almost. You’ll find someone whose been a young carer will end up looking after family, friends, neighbours – and they’ll have done it their whole life.

Caring – most people have a feeling for it, you'll have done it for your mum or dad, for your family members at some point. But not full-time, not for your whole childhood. The effect is massive. Lost childhoods. Lost education. The education goes downhill because they're thinking of home. Mobile phone use often isn't allowed in school so they'll bunk off to make a call home, checking if everything's OK. Then they'll get in trouble with the school and won't say why they did it, for fear they get put into care.

Anger – a lot of young carers become bullies. One girl I know, as her mum became more and more ill, the daughter started hitting out at others, though it wasn’t her personality normally. Sometimes people think that they can hide the fear by becoming someone else, someone less vulnerable. Mental health can be affected. Keep it all secret! There's a lot of self-harm among young carers, a lot of depression and yet many would say that they wouldn’t change their life, they see how valuable they are to their family.

They’re actually incredibly valuable to society as a whole. The social services need young carers. If there’s going to be less help in the home because of all these government cutbacks, then groups like young carers become vital, they’re providing a service. In this group, they’re becoming more and more proud of themselves. Depending on the illness of the person they’re looking after, most of them will become adult carers too, which can affect confidence. That’s a tough transition because they’re no longer a cute little kid with people saying “Ah bless, isn’t she good.”

In this support group we try to help that transition. Young carers don’t see it coming, but we see the pattern. Relationships will fail because of commitment. They won’t be able to keep down a job, because of the needs of whoever’s being cared for. Young people need support through this, it affects them deeply. We all go on suicide prevention courses in our office, even our administrator, because she answers the phone and you don’t know who will phone or what state they’ll be in.

Childhood, it’s often not there. It’s taken away from young carers – and the playing that goes with it. That’s where making art comes in. It gives back a little play, a little bit of childhood. They’re allowed time for self-expression, to discover themselves. It’s complex. Some of these kids have a great life. With some, I see great sadness behind the eyes. They want someone to understand. Once you’ve gained their trust and respect they’ll open up to you. Art is a great place to be. You can be yourself, it gives you room to reveal and to hide. Making art, these kids can tell you themselves without having to tell you.

(Interview conducted by Philip Davenport, 2011)

Friday, 4 February 2011

Bursting the bubble: week 3

This was a breakthrough day for the project, on our third week; suddenly the writing came alive and found a place among the portraits and collages and all the visual richness that Lois has helped to conjure. Anger was the key that unlocked the words, as it often is.

I'd just had a long conversation with Roz, one of the organisers of the young carers' group. She took time out from her usual busy-ness to talk me through her thoughts about the group and caring generally. One of the hidden aspects of care, she explained is anger. It gets buried, but it's there. Many young people who are carers lose their childhood and that is a high cost, seeding great resentment.

Immediately after this conversation, Lois called me over to the trainer customisation table, where a little experiment with destruction was taking place. The kids were wrecking training shoes, gleefully and very efficiently. Scissors, scalpels and good old fashioned ripping were all taking place, sometimes simultaneously.
"We were just talking about anger," I said, "how convenient."
"So what makes you angry?" Lois asked the group.

And out it came, the sofas that they hit in frustration, the walls, the screaming into pillows, the whole aaaaaaaaaaaaaah. One girl painted her 'anger pictures' - big crazy paving patterns filled with burning colour. Another ripped paper to pieces. Another drew pictures of herself over and over and scribbled them out.

In every single case they described, they went into another room to show their fury.

One girl explained how her Christmas present had been broken by her sibling ('He's ill. Got something wrong with him. I have to look after him.') and when she got cross about it she was reprimanded for showing anger to the invalid. All the outrage of a child's sense of injustice was in her face, real and powerful.

I made some notes as they spoke. Perhaps these pieces will feed into next week's session, a spur for our portraits into somewhere new. But however it moves, we have gone deeper, we have broken the surface.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Holocaust: memorial and forgetting

We first showed the animated textwork BRING LIGHT TOWARDS YOU at Piccadilly Railway Station in Manchester on Holocaust Memorial Day 2009. The piece is made of short poetic texts, memory fragments – they describe train journeys, recollected by holocaust survivors. This year, the BBC offered to run the whole sequence of ten 30-second films on their Big Screen in The Triangle, the posh heart of Manchester shopping. It felt like a strange and interesting juxtaposition, we agreed, on a busy English street (around 50000 people walk past everyday) next to a sign saying The Triangle.

The piece will be on view for ten days in all, dotted amongst news and weather reportage, trailers for the London Olympics and a smatter of other little experimental films. Some of BRING LIGHT TOWARDS YOU couldn't be shown at the railway station in 2009 - a reference to people throwing themselves on electric fences, for instance - so this is a first for the complete set. If you've time, go see. It's the oddest, saddest thing to be surrounded by the iconography of comfort-thru-shopping and at the same to be told 'RUN' 'ESCAPE' 'THE SS' – the signs whispering a past that's far beyond our normal edges.

For a long while I stopped reading about the holocaust: it gave off such hopelessness. Not only were the events themselves staggering acts of brutality, any attempt by me to reconcile them with understanding, let alone optimism, completely failed. The history makes a piece like BRING LIGHT TOWARDS YOU a shadow of a shadow. How can you understand this? Perhaps for most of us Holocaust Memorial is only ever a gesture of sympathy, rather than empathy.

When Lois and I went to photograph the piece on Holocaust Memorial Day this year, the air was ice – a viciously cold morning. People hunched by, deep in their coats. The jagged little war-stories onscreen seemed utterly out of place, like dreams. I thought about one of the holocaust survivors we worked with, a woman with profound memory lapses. She had been in Auschwitz, alongside her sister. The girls couldn't acknowledge one another; to do so would have meant one of them being killed. The guards wouldn't allow support networks like family to exist in the camps. So she became used to burying the truth. Decades later, this woman would have intense moments of lucidity while she worked with us and details of her experience would flare. But even as she revisited her memories, they erased themselves, a kind of self-anaesthetic.

I remember her saying: “I was there. I was in a camp...” and the rest of it was excised from her own mind before the next sentence was out of her mouth.

(Sections from BRING LIGHT TOWARDS YOU are shown approximately every half hour on the BBC Big Screen at The Triangle in Exchange Square, Manchester UK. There is seating directly opposite the screen, the piece is also visible from the cafes in Selfridges and Next. The 10 day run started on 27th January 2011. See also flickr site images from 2009 and 2011 at