DAY 2: The Building
The Bluecoat, School Lane, L1 3BX
Completed in 1717, The Bluecoat was originally a charity school. Since then, the school outgrew the building and has moved to a more suburban location in Allerton and the building left behind has been a great many things, including (on more than one occasion) nearly destroyed. The building was totally renovated and reopened in 2008, Liverpool’s Capital of Culture year, which saw the city’s creative output booming on an international scale. The Bluecoat has always been associated with performance, the artistic and the avant-garde: from performative installations by Captain Beefheart and Yoko Ono to literature festivals and some of the bravest and varied exhibitions I have ever come across. I worked here for over two years, and very recently said goodbye to move home to FACT, which I’ll look at tomorrow. I will miss the Bluecoat deeply: the vibrancy, the constant changes and excitement. The amazing Queen Anne architecture and the fact that this is the oldest building in Liverpool is not what is staggering about this structure. It is the community which inhabits it and holds it close, who hold it as an emblem of Liverpool’s long-standing artistic heart. This building is very much of the people, it feels like a place where activism, dissonance and artistic democracy is truly possibly and this feeds into the exhibitions, the outreach programme and the truly amazing people who visit, work and create in this beautiful building.
The building as a body. This old, once crumbling, body. Filled with sensual experiences, history, memory and, in the basement, the faint smell of damp. People rushing in and around, filling, emptying: feeling. Bodies are essentially about feeling. About touch, smell, sight, sound; and the emotions that accompany each intertwining sensation. About the way an entity reacts and interacts with the external world, and the ways in which that exchange builds foundations of opinion, thought and action. This building is a body whose senses are constantly reeling, and who opens up these sensory experiences to all of those who step inside.
The Bluecoat, which is a maze of studios and spaces filled with the history of so much, contains many rooms which I love. But there is one which I have loved more than any other. More than the Printing Studios, which are vibrant, vital and ran by one of the most exceptionally talented people I have ever met. If you asked anyone, they would probably say that was my favourite space: where art is made and groups of people come together to create. But it isn’t. There is a small space, at the top of a tall flight of concrete stairs which sits, perched in the apex of the building, and this is the room which has been a constant joy to me. Gallery 4, for me, has had some of the best pieces of work ever exhibited at the Bluecoat. This may seem odd, as it is a bit out of the way, and it has to be said some people go to exhibitions at the Bluecoat and probably never go up into this space, but casting my mind back, there seems to be something about this room and pieces which illuminate the senses and allow visitors to directly engage with the work, and in doing so, the building itself.
It becomes a sort of Alice In Wonderland space, where anything is possible and you never know what you might find. From wooden structures which you lie upon to feel the vibrations of swimming hammerhead sharks, sonically portrayed, to mazes of ribbon filled with fetishistic, erotically menacing figures. I have often thought it is either a very clever move by the curators to place such pieces up here, or in fact the artists who create that sort of work know when they’re onto a good thing and clamour for the space other people would disregard.
Walking through Nicholas Hlobo’s ribbon room in the 2010 Biennial, in the pitch black, the day after an opening I had missed, searching for the switch to ignite the spotlights, is one of my lasting impressions of working as a Gallery Assistant in the Bluecoat. Silken tendrils rustling around me as I moved from one side of the rainbow-filled room to the other, flowing over my skin and entangling me until I sensed a clearing ahead of me. And the noise I emitted when I was confronted with a leather-clad, hand sewn figure clutching a smaller version of itself looming in the darkness. After the initial shock, and when I had the lights on, I wandered around the (still very dark) forest of haberdashery. Without ducking or attempting to move around the ribbons hanging from the ceiling to the floor, I walked across the room again, ribbon falling across my face, and distinctly recall the feeling of childlike, nostalgic, sensory glee which coursed through my body forcing me to break into a massive grin. And every time I encountered a visitor in this room during its’ three-month stay, I saw the exact same elation and was immediately asked to tell them about the work, and the artist. They wanted to know everything about the man who had created this silent, poignant explosion of colour and sensation. Again and again, I talked about Hlobo and his political motivations, his background in South Africa, his sexuality and the work he does to access the complex emotions and primitive forces of being human. And again and again, I realised how vital work like this is: work which directly engages with the visitor’s senses, in doing so, accessing memory or promoting fascination and allowing them the space to wonder and investigate. This engagement and space is essential to people walking into an art gallery and coming out wanting to find out everything possible about the creators, and how it is possible they have been so affected.
The Bluecoat is built on engagement, on community and Gallery 4 – for me – encompasses what I see as being so special about the building. It is a space in which people can completely lose themselves in the work, and spend as much time as they like doing so. The pieces most memorable for me in this space are those which have had political and academic resonance, which have been delivered through a direct appeal to visitors’ sensory experience and allowed them to have an experience: be it contemplative, soothing, nostalgic, or challenging. This space is a distilled version of the building itself: a space which is made for visitors. This may seem a redundant thing to say of a public arts building, but I feel that the Bluecoat really is for, and of, the people. Liverpool is filled with these sorts of spaces, and more than anywhere else I have visited, lived or stayed in the UK, I feel the democratisation of art and cultural experience is incredibly strong here. FACT and the Bluecoat are two of the larger organisations which encompass this ethos, and at the end of the week I will talk about out some of the smaller, more DIY and artist-led spaces which take this ethos to a whole new level.