As part of my (Professional Practice) module on the BA FA course at Blackburn University; I am required to review a range of artworks and museum/gallery exhibitions. As part of my submission for this module I have written this blog post – ‘WE CAN’T BE KEPT DOWN’, a review of three British Textile Biennial outputs - The ‘Adidas Spezial Exhibition’, 2019 by Gary Aspden, ‘Transform and Escape the Dogs’, an exhibition by BTB Artist in residency Jamie Holman, and ‘Flashback’, Holman’s final project during his residency.
What follows is an individual review of each exhibition. The reviews are centred around the culturally relevant coherence of these exhibitions and works within the context of Blackburn and the people of the town.
WE CAN’T BE KEPT DOWN
On the 3rd October 2019, designer Gary Aspden introduced to Blackburn the Adidas Spezial Exhibition along with the release of the limited-edition Adidas Spezial, Nightsafe trainer, featuring the homeless charity Nightsafe’s logo. The proceeds from the launch day of the trainers went to Nightsafe, which help homeless youngsters in the area. An area which over recent years has seen a huge increase in youth homelessness as a result of high austerity measures.
Adidas Blackburn, Spezial Nightsafe
The exhibition was the highlight of the British Textile Biennial 2019, a month-long exploration and celebration of the nation’s creativity and innovation in textiles, with a focus on local heritage. The biennial brought people together through exhibition openings, music events, conferences, film screenings, workshops and participatory artwork. The BTB depicted Blackburn’s long running narrative of community spirit, resilience and creativity through gatherings of people.
Blackburn has a past, present and future which tells us something rather the opposite of what we read and hear in the media of a divided, un-engaged and non-cohesive town. With little help from central government, Blackburn has a consistent history of self-organising and innovative modes of resistance. A story narrated by generations of local people with a need through class to transform, escape and be creative and free.
Adidas Spezial, Gary Aspden, 2019
Adidas Spezial was the headliner for the British Textile Biennial 2019. The exhibition included over 1200 pairs of trainers, some signed by the likes of Liam Gallagher, the Arctic Monkeys, the Smiths and more. The full Spezial archive included trainers from the 1950’s through to the release of the Blackburn Spezial Nightsafe trainer during the Biennial.
Hosted by the Exchange in Blackburn, Adidas exhibited their limited-edition trainers inside a large polytunnel, within LED-lit cabinets and plinths. The pristine presentation of the trainers was accompanied by a contrasting yet complementary backdrop of the somewhat dilapidated Exchange.
Sparklestreet Projects, 3D virtual exhibition tour
The Exchange, now owned by a local charity group, is a derelict, Grade 2 listed building rich in heritage dating back to 1861 as a Cotton Exchange. Re:Source charity are now bringing the Exchange back to community use through the delivery of events, playing a role within the regeneration of Blackburn.
During the Biennial, Adidas also supported a series of music events to raise money for the charity Nightsafe. These included appearances from Goldie, Mani, and a performance by Primal Scream at King Georges Hall.
Adidas ran a schools and colleges programme during the week for students from all over the UK, which included private tours of the exhibition and a talk by Gary Aspden himself.
As seen in the above image, Adidas also shared a virtual online visit of the exhibition produced by Sparklestreet Projects. This was a classy output by Adidas going the extra mile to meet the desires of those who couldn’t physically attend the exhibition.
Leading up to the BTB I was sceptical of the Adidas Exhibition. Having talked to others regarding the exhibition it was clear that I wasn’t the only one to question whether a commercial brand within the BTB might raise some eyebrows.
In contemporary society we are beginning to see more and more critical commentary around consumerism. More people are beginning to question the ethical values of commercial designer clothing companies and manufacturers. Blackburn’s very own clothing and garment makers Community Clothing openly discuss the ethical contradictions of the fashion industry and consumerist culture, while thriving to practice by better example and paving a way for the local textile industry and creating employment opportunity for local people. With close links to Blackburn’s Art School, the BTB and the Festival of Making, Community Clothing play a recognisable role in the town’s re-generation and have become embedded within the identity of the town.
Although the two clothing brands are not particularly comparable; they do share similar qualities which were exemplified during the BTB. It is a mistake to presume that commercial designer brands don’t resonate with working class cultures in meaningful ways. Whatever critics might feel about commercial brands; such particular sporting brands like Adidas are deeply embedded in all of our places, cultures and identities.
The debate of whether the Adidas Exhibition was at odds with its location was put to rest the moment they began installing the exhibition. From day one, the company began recruiting and paying Blackburn College students and locals to install the exhibition. Volunteers received a free pair of trainers. They worked with and paid local artists, designers and photographers. The company engaged wholly with the community and there was a real anticipation throughout the town.
The overall reaction to this exhibition was outstanding. Holding up to a maximum of 500 people. The exhibition most days was queued out the door and down the street.
During an interview with Showstudio, Aspden explained that in comparison with the Spezial shows previously hosted in London, Manchester and Paris, that the exhibition in Blackburn had been the most successful.
What was distinctive about the Adidas exhibition is that it met the desires of so many people of Blackburn who might not usually attend art exhibitions and such events. This addressed the relevance and necessity of everyday culture within the arts and eliminated the class barrier which exists between our people and our museums and galleries, levelling the playing field, a display of social cohesion.
To meet health, hygiene and safety regulations of the exhibition, Adidas also contributed towards new toilet facilities and access ramps for the Exchange. This will have improved the functionality of the Exchange for future events, contributing furthermore toward the regeneration of the town.
The Adidas Spezial Exhibition was an absolutely unforgettable and engaging experience for the town and those involved. While positively impacting the town socially and politically through the raising of funds for Nightsafe charity and the multitude of revenue and media attention they brought to the town, Aspden and his team also delivered an aesthetically pleasing and meaningful showcase and exhibition.
In consideration of my own practice, research and methods; the Adidas exhibition has mostly made me reflect on the importance of how art exhibitions, events, interventions and language meet different demographics in the context of their cultural reference.
Transform and Escape the Dogs, Jamie Holman, 2019
Transform and Escape the Dogs Map, Jamie Holman, 2019
‘Transform and Escape the Dogs’ by BTB Artist in residence Jamie Holman, was hosted in an empty shop on Church Street, Blackburn. The exhibition presented over a years-worth of the artists research through documentation of a series of participatory artworks and gatherings and a culmination of collaborative contemporary artwork. The work included three banners, a sound piece, photography, screen-print, film, installation, and a stained-glass window. The range of craft and mediums on show were supporting of the artists collaborative approach and those of who he had collaborated with. The artist had also showcased his research, readings and artefacts inside a glass cabinet. I found this particularly insightful.
Challenging Arts Council England’s assumption that working class people don’t engage with the arts, Holman’s research into local heritage captured the wild creativity of the working class with a mix of themes and references from mill poets and painters to Acid House ravers; all tied together by a common desire for transformation. Holman shows an exceptional degree of thoroughness in his research as he weaves together un-told histories and mythologies of working-class creativity, expression, struggle, resistance and escapism.
Looking at what happened in the cotton mills other than manufacturing, Holman found histories of auto-didactic working-class people from Blackburn doing things that have never been done before. Creatives who, in spite of constant oppression, couldn’t be kept down. The re-occurring hare motif throughout the work stands as a symbol of transformation and symbolises a mythology which articulates the desire for freedom. The motif holds relevance to all areas of Holman’s research, from Pendle Witches who were hung for claiming they could turn into hares and escape, to the mill workers role in the abolition of slavery, to their ancestors who over 100 years later capitalised on the empty mills with the acid house raves. This motif weaves a visual and contextual thread through the works in the exhibition.
Sunday Morning, Jamie Holman, 2019
The aesthetics of the work showed an un-nostalgic response to heritage, while acknowledging the craft of the past through stained glass and banners.
I admired the artists ability to lose himself in his research, to direct a series of participatory artworks and engage robustly with people and communities through his work with his eye on a white wall exhibit as a requisite end. This influenced the direction of a project I am currently working on, a project which has required a socially engaged approach with an emphasis on process.
The collaborative approach of Holman is reflective of the context of the work and the history and stories of Blackburn through the narrative of a current day transformative community of practice, which can’t be kept down.
Flashback, 2020, Un-cultured Creatives
Holman’s research as the BTB artist in residence, led him to the mid to late 1980’s Thatcherite Britain. Un-employment was rife, poverty and inequality were rising, and the mills and warehouses were left derelict. Between 1988 and 1991 these empty mills and warehouses were re-claimed by local youths for illegal raves.
30 years on, through a series of recorded interviews, Un-cultured Creatives, artist Jamie Holman and producer Alex Zawadzki captured the memories of 33 participants who were involved in the raves, from DJ’s to Policemen, from party organisers to attendees.
In collaboration with designer Chris Mason, Holman and Zawadzki produced an online archive of the memories shared by these people. An archive which stresses the equity of working-class stories. These are personal stories about a sub-culture of expression, creativity and wildness. While listening to these stories it becomes clear that they are a part of our cultural heritage which should be remembered. A working-class revolution known commonly by its participants as ‘the Parties’.
The website has a clean and straight forward layout and is easy to use. The homepage contains a brief history of acid house and outlines Holman and Zawadzki’s methodology and the reasoning for the archive.
The audio interviews which also appear through the flashing of transcripts on screen, go into depth of the personal’ of individuals who were involved in the rave scene, enlightening the viewer with a range of perspectives. The aesthetic of the flashing words gives a nod to the unforgotten aesthetic of the parties. Holman leads each interview with the same series of specific questions, directing the interview while revealing the individuality of each participant and their role within the raves.
What many of those who attended the raves discussed during their interviews, was the transition they went through from somewhat hostile social lives surrounded by racism and football hooliganism, to what became monumental diverse gatherings of people who all shared a common joy of dancing to acid house music. Transformation through a collective creative desire.
The website also includes a gallery archive of newspaper clippings, photographs and propaganda associated with the raves.
“We hope this archive creates a snapshot of the rebellious spirit of 20th Century Northern England for those of you reading this 100 years in the future.” Holman, 2020
This message to future visitors of the site captures Holman’s desires of embedding and preserving our working-class stories, making them accessible to future researchers. Choosing an online platform for this archive is responsive of contemporary society and will be no doubt more accessible for future researchers.
This online archive has evoked my own considerations around digital methods of publishing and documenting my own work and research; and the importance of archiving these projects and embedding them in time and place for future researchers.
This is a fitting end to the artists residency with the BTB which began with the archives of Lancashire creatives from 100 years ago who couldn’t be kept down.
The launch of the website during the covid-19 lockdown was quite apt given that exhibition and gallery spaces are currently inaccessible. Online content like this is now more necessary than ever.
Gatherings initiate transformation
The ‘Transform and Escape the dogs’ exhibition brochure includes a text which reads ‘Gatherings initiate transformation’.
Photograph of an Acid House Rave, exhibited in the Flashback Gallery.
All three of the BTB outputs that I have reviewed in this blog attracted national media attention, putting Blackburn on the map for the right reasons and subverting the original dialogue of the medias commentary of the town.
Through their outputs for the British Textile Biennial, Holman and Aspden show that for centuries working class people of Blackburn and surrounding areas have found transformation and equity through art, music, magic and fashion; and continue to do so through mass-gatherings. Like the Blackburn youths did with the acid house parties, Holman and Aspden used empty buildings and spaces for gatherings which through their contextual similarities brought various demographics and culture together that might not have come together otherwise. Together they were resilient of the media’s impositions on the town.
Resilient in times of oppression and poverty. Resilient like the mill workers, like the witches, painters, poets and ravers.
There is a clear connection between all these people over that past two centuries. A connection related through class and the personal. The oppression of the working class and their remarkable willingness to be creative is a narrative which runs throughout the history of Blackburn, right through to both Holman and Aspden and the current generation of emerging creatives and young people.
With an eye on the future, Holman and Aspden have created a dialogue between the past and present. A dialogue which is about class, culture, people and articulating the frustration about the lack of broader equity of artistic and cultural activity in Blackburn, past and present. It’s about the gathering of people and engaging in creative ways and how this can become revolutionary. Gatherings of mill workers, of witches, of football fans, of ravers, of artists, of trainer fanatics. Gatherings of people who under no circumstances, can be kept down.
Sparklestreet Projects, 3D virtual exhibition tour https://my.matterport.com/show/?m=7nkF7RkE2E5
Photograph of an Acid House Rave, exhibited in the Flashback Gallery https://www.acidhouseflashback.co.uk/gallery