Mayfair Ballroom, Newcastle upon Tyne. Demolished to make room for the Gate complex, Newgate Street.
A small box with a large red button is passed around among an audience. An amplified quintet plays on stage; drums, bass clarinet, piano, double bass, turntablist. They are virtual shadows under the proscenium arch of Newcastle’s Mayfair Ballroom as though standing at the open mouth of a some beast. They play - as the box is passed from person to person in the audience – an open-stringed rickety’d flounce; a mix of curiosity and irresolution. The box, with long wires running from it that plug into a dark corner beside the stage, is followed by the musicians’ eyes. It is a nomadic neurology’s nervous extension, distended, out of reach. Fingers tap cured wood, high-string and keyed up, shortened temperament, shorted circuitously; periphrastic skirt hemmed in by perverse wants for wound, their rhapsodic licks acquiring a taste for trauma. Noise-nose / sound-scent; a synaesthetic affinity. The audience feel provoked, hassled and restless. A struggle and a quickening pursuit of some innovative authority not yet manifest; eyeballing one another. They sense that the index of possibilities is getting smaller, and poetic agency is in danger of collapsing into polyglottal babble – or a closed loop of denial and rebuttal. But within this triptych of players, audience and alien technology, infinite qualifications are being glimpsed, and written into existence as expressive discontent – how long can they handle the dissonances, breaks and deformations? The pressure, pleasure, of the near-inexpressible exhaustively incites unbearable newness; a newness enforced and empowered by necessity. Then.
The button on the box is pressed. Lights cut, and the sound lurches back. A pendulous distance now hangs between the audience and musicians, who keep playing. The sudden drop in amplification makes it seem as though the audience are eavesdropping on a private jam. It is a domestic embrace, intimately skin, breath, bristle; an acuter sense of the musicians’ language of physical gestures. Each audience member’s eyes dart between the five players, intuitively following the eddies that their shunts, jerks, twitches and nods set in motion. Sound is seemingly secondary to the dance they watch. Strenuously they leer as the musicians begin to fade away, as if two enormous arms encircle them and draw them away from the audience, into its deep, gated bract.
Spot the difference. Top: St David’s Centre, Cardiff. Mid-left: Stratford Westfield, London. Mid-right: Liverpool One. Bottom-left: Victoria Square, Belfast. Bottom right: Cabot Circus, Bristol.
They loom, gloom, over another plaza, and signify a landscape characterised and dominated by delineations of exclusion and exclusivity by absent agencies who exert an impressive control over the shaping of our cities. As Professor Stephen Graham, author of ‘Cities Under Siege’, has detailed, strategies of (en)closure, exclusion and domestic urban militarisation are used to dispossess citizens of – to paraphrase Lefebvre - their right to the city. Indeed, Marxist geographer Doreen Massey encourages us to ‘…ask not, perhaps, do you belong to this landscape, but to whom does this landscape, effectively, belong.’ There is a creeping colonisation of public space in city centres by privately controlled shopping thoroughfares that are assiduous in their architectural and commercial homogeneity; Liverpool One, Bristol’s Cabot Circus, Belfast’s Victoria Square, Cardiff’s St David’s Centre and Cardiff Bay, Stratford’s Westfield Centre, Sheffield’s Sevenstone, and Leeds’s Trinity, to name a few. They epitomise what architectural critic Kenneth Frampton calls ‘absolute placelessness.’ Newcastle’s Eldon Square shopping centre, opened in 1977, is of an older ilk but foreshadowed the heavily securitised and privately managed spaces that impose codes of behaviour; no skateboarding, loitering, photography, filming, busking, music, graffiti, ball-games, begging, protesting; no hoodies. Speculative complexes of one and two bed apartments house gated communities that are inevitable adjuncts to commercial redevelopment and regeneration. They seek to allude to a certain kind of cosmopolitanism; the young professional – creative, affluent, cool – the kind of societal fiction that partly drives justifications for regeneration. In Newcastle and Gateshead, new riverside apartments are situated directly in front of the deprived areas of Walker, Scotswood Road and Gateshead as if to mask the realities of societal injustice and urban decline. The encroachment of socially regimented places hands over control of nominally civic space - of the public production of space - to a surreptitious and spatially undemocratic expansionism; it is a crisis of the spatial condition. Indeed, Bryan Finoki, writing on his Subtopia blog, argues that there is a need to ‘develop our lenses for observing everyday space and the dimensions of our daily environments as they are inseparably linked with politics, state power, militarism, security, (in)justice, etc.’
These buildings are the architecture of 24-hour television; there is nothing to recall because we cannot be bothered to remember. It is an anti-archival condition of the re-recordable, with erasure as the register of our experience. It is at the same time however, more intrusive, more pervasive because it is more about surveying than seeing; it is, according to writer Iain Sinclair, ‘the flat literalness of reality TV.’ They are unsettling because they are transparent, because they are, on the surface, the absolute antithesis of the solid bunker and fortress architecture of the mid-century, with its load-bearing cantilevered cubes that trenchantly defied gravity and logic, but that also seemed anchored by their contention with nature, their dispute with the earth; their modulation of their surroundings. Redeveloped precincts like Liverpool One, Cabot Circus, Eldon Square and Victoria Square adopt spatial manifestos that encourage a perception of them as uncontained, free-flowing, organic and democratically organised spaces, and as such they make their limits disguised or difficult to perceive. Crucially these buildings have adopted the language of psychogeography and the strategies of the situationists. Their chief quality, as architect Rem Koolhaas has noted in his essay ‘Junkspace’ (2002), is solely endless proliferation, and not form. This extensive seamlessness, itself an infrastructure, is one of the essential attributes of public-private (PFI) regeneration projects. There is then, arguably, an overlap of terminologies and narratives, as the opiated disorientation of the dérive and the flaneur’s aimless drift across the city now seems analogous with the stuporous flows of people along contours of unified ambience. Indeed, we could go further and suggest that there is an unsettling sense of collusion between situationism and gentrification in modern planning rhetoric.
If you walk Newcastle, you soon sense how much of it was, is, in thrall to the ‘grand project.’ The enormous motorway - an intrinsically doomed plan, and failed piece of architecture - decisively cuts the eastern inner city and suburbs of Shieldfield, Sandyford and Heaton from the centre. Its relics of modernist optimism in the elevated concrete walkways, brutalist Bank of England building, complex pedestrian subways, Derwent Tower (the “Dunston Rocket”) and the Shieldfield housing estate are ideal film sets for a Kubrick because we have successfully recast these brutalist spaces as dangerous, bleak, sinister, menacing; the culmination of treacherous architectural hubris.
They are familiar to us as places of deprivation, perversion, degeneracy, violence, sometimes immorality. The social, civic buildings of the 1960s stink of piss and idealism. Their idealism is where their immorality lies. But Newcastle and Gateshead’s brutalist legacy, its car parks - including one very lamentably “ex” car park - stand, stood as monuments to not only civic, but artistic confidence. They dared to provoke something genuinely new, explicit, into existence. It created what was lacking. It wasn’t apologetic and it especially wasn’t submissive to natural topographies, instead, it created its own that sought to mirror, impose, and go beyond, the natural grammar of Newcastle’s three mounds, the Lort Burn (present-day Dean Street) Pandon Burn and the Ouse Burn, running steeply up from the quayside towards the sweeping curvatures of the city’s centre, its numerous centres over time palpable as a movement, a visual terracing of architectures upward from the Tyne. Newcastle’s (and Gateshead’s) cyclical projects of development and demolition imbues it with numerous false starts, and a history that stutters in a closed loop.
The grand projects of dismantling, the sound of vibrating metal spikes splitting concrete, the hard thud of stack collapsing on to stack, presents to us the apparent indistinguishability of renewal and reversal. It is a slow coercion from above to forget not only what existed, but the optimism of a society which sanctioned their construction. Time is tucked neatly back to make room for a new enticement of gloss, glass, cladding and transparent surface. Gateshead’s Trinity Square’s replacement is, like many new developments by the river, a diaphanous construction for the eye to skim, and a skin for the real city to decay behind. These are places to breeze past, not to linger; paler spaces.
We are amongst the abundance of jollies in the shopping malls that make you feel at home – art-official-offers-you (in less self-assured moments) glimpses of yourself. There is a man reading Walter Benjamin by the dry ex-fountain underneath the great glass domed teat, that same apparition that Keiller’s Robinson spotted in London in 1994. He, perhaps, an over-lapse of the arcadian dweller, spun back and woven from the same weave’d-wrought iron, but now all skin and no skeleton. A hallowed skin machine. This is our eternal pivot (and inescapable return) elliptically looped but splayed in-and-out-and-in-and-round-and-out-and-over, tinctured by an unquenchable elastic nag at the back of the mind. Emphatically looped but brayed and fragmented, a “history wandering onto the scene”, its unstoppable decline buttressed against aching progress. This arcade is a terrible mute accenting its attenuated double, the singing bract of Club Martinique, whose jazzers marched mourning through the city upon its demolition. A procession in semi-silent cloth, an ecclesiastical shuffle swung through rows of seven, drifting through conditioned space, built as conditional spaces. The nagging lack of an eight, a step too soon but none too far, they trod on made up ground, swell and swollen, un-whole in its laggard certitude. This city shifts, retracts and redacts itself. The fragmentary falter of readjustment is a mute yearning to see these places as figments’ fabrication. But falter’s pigment colours only the cornered gaze, the passing-byes of inventories out of sight; accentuating a wound and its repair, a limp and its loping redress; a double deal. They march through stillborn arches that support little more than fantasies of form, and coerce the curdling eddies of bodies through themselves. Newcastle’s a proliferation of extinctions and rebuttals; a city excusing itself into a farce of atonement – exorcising – patched up – stitched up. In what way does your local lie? But we walk the way-stations between rigid categories, places we pause to allow bleed-and-seepage-secretion from elsewheres, pioneer tails – trawlers and spider-rigs perched on the deep horizon. We’re wise ‘n’ too acquainted with the latticework of enmeshment and none too err-rationally, addressing none but a network. So why not witness a bend of dictions where the invisible threshold of madness becomes visible, where poetry b-l-ends into absolutely reality? Why not meaning communicated and imbued with the risk of tearing itself apart? Occupying a critical precipice, this is a condition that imperils its own destruction, the cleft between yarn and yearn, the parable and the parabola – parabolic – the moral fall and lift to redemption. Wakened to the city, digressed and peeled, mapped by the heavens and buffeted by voices of reproach, we walked in silence and shaped a void – well-shaped by omission. We defined a potent blank, listening to the passing measures presenting a reality that exceeded what we heard – we were already living among the ruins. One collision on top of another collision. The cleft between clasp and grasp – pressure the purest incarnation of grasp as it activates surfaces and tunnels down sub-dermally. A tunneling dub; an opening up of things by reduction…to the troglodyte – attentive to his doubled presence in enclosure – understands himself as informed and deformed by reflection and unending reification. He talks in sentences that tap themselves along the wall, listening for hallow’d spots, a register of repetition that occupies the space between innervation and enervation, both vitalizing and exhausting. At night – what night? - he dreams he is enclosed like papal flesh in pupal dress, with violable edges – suffering seepage – his skin a slow eruptive surface bubbling confession in slow froth; an irresistible spume.
Lyonel Feininger. A German-American expressionist.
the flesh split cold, the stomach’s acrid film - a rabid swarm-gullet, a rip cut fillet - that toothsayn ache in the sheer seared flint, the seer born blunt into the spent cold ache. what god can come of this? the gathered gloom. the sheared block, pivots of the town to swing yr journey round. centrifugal towers, fugued and tombed like cemetery piles. my depth charged broadcast, tunnelled dub and sonar pulse worridly outwords. where are you owen grant? are you among the merchants? sailed and flung strung high high across the stonework to catch the err; to grind us forward. send us a perforation in the ether, a trip in the signal; a leaped bounce ‘n bell ring rez and razed to the foundry chance of sound and sail, but whittled whistle is wound no more and winded lung collapsed in your skinny corpse smoked thin and toughened taut. we used to smoke ourselves into dawn on the steps and drink the black bile until our bellies distended but our torsos didn’t stretch. now i’m rounder and a carriage full and stout, a sack sounding less and less and lesser and less.
split booth seer, lead-lined and spermicidal over a spuming trough rested as to saddle your wrested debt. a casual femur and the indented thud as buttressed flesh splits cold; the pontif’d grope’s sorry grasp struck down in stiffened prime. a saddle for your rested flesh upon the newsreaders’ jolly gait; a romp among explosions and monarchy and sex and debt. set upon the rabid pounce of gentrified polemics is the fattened pluck of the goosed classes, the pheasantry’s final word spoken into the gleaming grey cenotaph, that muted conch of our bunkered century…
Above: Ouseburn valley during the building of the Victoria Tunnel that transported coal from east to west.
Below: Speculative property development plans. The Ouseburn is an already thriving area in Newcastle upon Tyne that could do without the infestation of cheap 2-bed flatpack boxes from hell that plague other parts of the city.
Another grand project in the city that promotes social inclusion while at the same time privatises swathes of space and imposes its own codes of behaviour - no skateboarding, loitering, photography, trespassing, busking, music, rambling; access only at sanctioned times. Spaces of control, where gentrification is a method of asserting that control and encouraging certain forms of behaviour that tend to serve capitalist models of production and consumption. Art, for example, is consolidated into a spectacle created by professionals, and serves the narratives of regeneration by boosting a city’s cultural prestige while its leaders simultaneously cut access to arts and humanities courses in colleges and universities via exorbitant fees, and cut funding to its citizens’ own arts organisations. I like the Baltic, and think the city would be significantly poorer without it, but while it is widely agreed that showing international artists and bringing exhibitions of Anselm Kiefer, Elizabeth Price and Steve McQueen is vital healthy and enriching - good for tourism, and has allegedly palpable economic benefits - it could be argued that these huge palaces are cultural non-places, airport gallery terminals that bear little impact on, and have little real dialogue with the local arts scenes of the towns ands cities they’re in. Many do have community outreach programmes and facilitate small exhibits of local artists, but many of these fall under the rubric of inclusivity and diversity…for the sake of inclusivity and diversity, and not for sake of encouraging ‘good art’ - a symptom of capitalism’s recuperation and neutering of multiculturalism’s affirmative power - something critic Robert Hughes efficiently exposes in ‘Culture of Complaint’. This attitude towards the arts invariably ends up patronising the local and venerating the global. This is not to say that all local, or self-proclaimed underground art is noble, thoughtful and good - it isn’t. (Nor is all the international art that graces the Baltic). But it suggests that its function certainly in terms of what is deemed “local art” or “community art” is to be subsumed into the collusive first person plural - “we think, we do, we achieve” in exchange for funding, publicity or gallery facilitation. A diverse community might be forgiven for seeing itself as an undifferentiated blob of otherness, whose core value, to be cynical, is in presenting a self-congratulating, illusory, solidarity that politicians and civic leaders can adopt and promote as their own. This is partly because it lends itself easily to Richard Florida’s omnipotent gospel of creative-led regeneration that so captured the imagination of post-industrial western capitals in the 00s. Many young artists and academics who have grown up within that model of (well-funded) art practice continue to work unreflectively under the auspices of open-ended collective engagement, which tends to excuse boring, bad, theoretically tenuous art, utterly devoid of the self-reflexive considerations which might rescue it from simply asking its audience to chorus, “well, it’s great we’ve given them the chance to actually participate in culture.”
"Inspire, create, live" salivated the hoarding around the Ouseburn Valley in the east of Newcastle during 2010-2013. Empty dictums of course, but the point is entirely that you don’t need the art or the artist anymore, just the signifiers. Funded local art tends to be burdened with expectations of functioning as a bridge building exercise between or within communities - the art object doesn’t matter, because the warm glow of cooperation and public engagement in spaces outside of the rarified air of the ‘oppressive’ gallery trumps any need for aesthetic contemplation in all its guises - dialogue, argument, judgement, questioning. ‘Participation’ and ‘engagement’ are the clarion howls that parallel museum curators’ obsession with ‘interactivity’. But they are occluding the more vital calls for universal access to the arts at all educational levels - schools, colleges, universities - so that we can learn how to uncover and think about the inherent possibilities for change and revolution in the world around us.
I’ll end with a quote by the late, great Robert Hughes, the contrarian antipode whose trenchant prose is an invaluable tool for cutting through our society’s corporate PR-spiel and the arts’ funding didactics. We must demand more of the arts and our artists, more than comfort or spectacle or maudlin introspection, particularly because we know they are capable of showing us ourselves at our most thoughtful, empathetic and provocative. We are far more than our neanderthal politics of divide and rule, much greater than the politicians who wish to divide the polity by pointing out scapegoats and hate-objects (normally the poor and those on benefits - normally conflated as the same), whose role is to serve as human caricatures that dramatise the difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’. The media, as always, is complicit in inflaming this new Macarthyism. Pat Buchannan, Rebublican party stooge and speechwriter for Nixon said, “If we tear this country in half, we can pick up the bigger half.” - a comment that could just as easily have come from the Tory ranks of Britain’s coalition government.
So, to Hughes:
"Artists vacillate between a largely self-indulgent expressiveness and a mainly impotent politicisation, and the contest between education and TV - between argument and conviction by spectacle - has been won by television." - Robert Hughes - ‘Culture of Complaint.’
"When politicians try to win consent or mobilise support for their policies, they frequently assert that these are endorsed by ‘hard-working families up and down the country’. Their policies cannot be impractical, unreasonable or extreme, they imply, because they are solidly in the groove of popular thinking - ‘what everybody knows’, takes-for-granted and agrees with - the folk wisdom of the age. This claim by the politicians, if correct, confers on their policies popular legitimacy.
In fact, what they are really doing is not just invoking popular opinion but shaping and influencing it so they can harness it in their favour. By asserting that popular opinion already agrees, they hope to produce agreement as an effect. This is the circular strategy of the self-fulfilling prophecy.”
From the late, great Stuart Hall. A fine, patient writer. Full text:
I grew up in Belfast, a city where ‘the city’ was denied to its own population via ‘no go’ areas, willed into being by institutional, religious and political segregation. Military gates and concrete bollards masquerading as brutalist plant pots prevented free access into the city centre, while movement throughout the rest of city was controlled by a network of militarised valves manned by understandably paranoid soldiers or sectarian paramilitaries. To walk was to open yourself up to suspicion by the British Army, the RUC, or anyone wary of outsiders inside their territory. Consequently, few people walked let alone wrote of Belfast like they did London, Sheffield, Liverpool or Newcastle. Indeed the great agitator of city planners in the 1960s, Iain Nairn, barely remarked on Belfast, instead writing an uncharacteristically unconvincing essay on Derry in 1961 and a postscript in 1967, one year before the RUC assaulted civil rights protesters and ignited ‘the troubles’ that, over thirty years, decimated Belfast’s architecture and cleaved its population firmly in two. Nairn, an architectural critic, did not consider Belfast one of the United Kingdom’s ‘changing towns’; perhaps he saw a city stalled, a behemoth unable to pull itself from post-war industrial decline in the way that other similar-sized cities like Liverpool, Glasgow and Sheffield seemed, at the time, to promise. Certainly the lyricism with which he writes cities Glasgow (and its grand social housing projects like the Cumberlnauld) into a specifically Nairnian poetic is a fair distance from the grim stasis of the Belfast I grew up in, which seemed to skip the optimistic and daring period of grand modernist projects straight to a landscape punctuated by the swooping glass roofs, wavy curves, multicoloured cladding and Teflon tents of ‘urban regeneration’, a landscape depressingly familiar to many UK cities now.
Newcastle offers, on first wander, a duality of movement, one that’s present throughout the entire city; the elevated walkways for pedestrians and the motorways below for cars. But soon you might notice the subterranean footways that creep below the roads and perch above the underground metro system. You might hear of the invisible rivers that still flow underneath Grey Street and the Highbridge quarter south towards the Tyne, culverted and as silent as the coal tunnels that run from the west towards the Ouseburn valley in the east. There is a third movement, glimpsed as dramatic shards elevated high above the wanderer on Dean Street and the Ouseburn; the overhead east coast railway line. Newcastle gives you a thrilling sense that there is always another groove cut underneath you, or above you. It innervates the wanderer and proffers a modality of movement – that of the hop, skip and cut– analogous to the syntax of musical and poetic rhythm. The city is crosscut and overlaid with conditions and registers of speed, and made alive by those who use them – the speed tribes.
Devil Repent artwork. Back of CD sleeve.
Last Rites / Catacombed / Split Booth / Doubled Visions / Waste Away / Ascension’s Clap / The Ark Of My Carriage
DO YOU THINK THAT’S AIR YOU’RE BREATHING?
'Waste Away', from Devil Repent
James Joys & Pete Devlin
Releases February 2014.