twenty+3 projects
North West England

"Stories about places are always makeshift things. They are composed with the world's debris … where things extra and other (details and excesses coming from elsewhere) insert themselves into the accepted framework, the imposed order …. The surface of this order is everywhere punched and torn open by ellipses, drifts, and leaks of meaning: it is a sieve-order." Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life.

Manchester is a city that for years I only ever encountered in an evening’s gloom, in the dimmed light of twilight having travelled across Snake Pass, venturing across the county border in order to see a band play at the Academy or the Apollo. My geographical knowledge of the city was thus limited to those marginal (though ubiquitous) places that seem to straddle the arterial roads as they bleed into the heart of the city. These are the unknown clusters of inhabitation passed through quickly, fleetingly, gazed at from a distance or absent-mindedly through the veiled glaze of a car window or train carriage. Alternatively – back in those days – a different topography emerged consisting only of the empty spaces of the city itself, a strange utilitarian map of the gaps and voids and disused lots, whose daytime use remained unknown to nocturnal visitors like us who were only searching for somewhere to park (for free). Even then though, in such limited terms of encounter, there was always a sense of when a boundary or threshold had been crossed, when a moment of getting lost or taking the wrong turn slipped us unwittingly into an area that felt somehow different or charged, where a certain tension or uncertainty lingered in the air. Later on I came to know a different Manchester, conjured in the space of the partial and fragmentary tales retold with pleasure by Lancastrian friends, a place formed from the memories of other people’s lives and experiences, the traces of others’ pasts. Beyond these individual experiences of place and time, an idea of ‘Manchester’ has also emerged at a level of cultural or collective memory where it has become synonymous with a particular moment in time, a particular kind of sound, a particular sort of attitude. Manchester has come to define a certain way of being.

The danger perhaps, as any city develops a specific cultural identity or accrues particular associations, is that it might become locked into this assumed identity, unable to then escape its past or the role that it has been assigned. Or else these declarations of a place’s identity inevitably exclude or marginalise those experiences or lives that do not fit the model. Any branding necessitates an economy of expression that can be packaged neatly and sold. Individual or localised identities might become assimilated into a sense of homogenised or collective history – the shared or agreed narrative of a city space – whilst certain stories run the risk of being lost or forgotten, or of disappearing forever. Listen out for those minor stories that linger at the edges of a city for they are like footnotes or marginalia that reveal the hidden archaeology of a place; they speak both of the city’s past and of its potential future. Listen carefully, for every individual will tell a different story of the city, and in every story a different city will begin to emerge. As in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities it becomes possible for a person to conjure innumerable versions of the same city, where each encounter or conversation about the place brings another permutation of the same story, a different way of telling a tale, a different intonation.

The exhibition While you Wait by the artists group Anachron-Gen attempted to communicate the experience of the city from the position of the visitor, that of an outsider. The group were clear that this was not about the experience ofthe tourist visitor, the mediated encounter with a city determined and directed by various authorities, whose guidance on the ‘places you should see’ and ‘no-go areas’ inevitably maps out only a sanitised experience of a given place. To the tourist visitor, the city remains a polite host, but one that refuses to give away too many of its secrets; it forever remains at a distance however close you think you are. Anachron-Gen were more interested in the perspective of the regular visitor, the liminal experience of someone who inhabits the charged threshold of being both inside and outside of a city or system, of being within and yet also remaining without. Here, the laws of polite hosting become relaxed, and the city begins to yield, drop its guard. The regular visitor occupies the same state as an initiand or novice – they have been given partial access to the unspoken codes and customs of a place, but do not yet have the status or knowledge (or responsibility) of a full inhabitant. They operate in a space in-between one order and another – their experiences hover at the point between the familiar and the strange, as certain zones within the city become repeatedly navigated, emotionally and psychologically mapped out and inhabited. Being a visitor in a city is like having only a partial grasp of a language, where certain meanings might indeed make it across the gulf of translation in one piece, whilst others remain incomprehensible; blank signs that remain opaque and incommunicable.

This shift or slip between the familiar and the incomprehensible seemed to underpin the collection or collision of images, object and sounds encountered in the gallery. Even the gallery space itself – the front room of a mid-terrace, whitewashed and evacuated of its homeliness – occupied this uncanny space of inbetweenness. In the centre of a space a park bench beckoned, and (as with all park benches) from here it became possible to witness a particular world unfold. Various images were gathered in a file on the bench and demanded further scrutiny, whilst others had been attached to the wall as though to mark them out as having been selected, chosen somehow. The images themselves were somehow undecided: both banal and yet compelling, particular and yet also rather indeterminate, focused on something and yet often a little blurred. Whilst they all seemed torelate to place in some way it was difficult at first to discern any other connections or relationships between the images themselves: a cluster of five aeroplanes cutting across the sky, scaffolding hugging the façade of a building, an island sunset, a shed, storage boxes, empty carparks, a motorway with its signs facing away – its location undeclared, a diagrammatic plan of the city zoo oddly recalling Guy Debord’s Naked City, its zones (Scenic Island, Belle Vue Speedway, Grand Lake) linked by red directional arrows as though to invite the possibility of an unexpected dérive. Objects were situated equally incongruently around the room: a tray of cress in which a miniature plastic elephant roamed as though through some tropical forest, a monitor blasting blank visuals towards the corner of the room, which was shared by a small ceramic model of a volcano, a potted plant on the window-ledge which seemed to enjoy its rather ambivalent role; it seemed to exist more as a leftover or residue from when the gallery had been a domestic dwelling.

From the corner of the room the recorded sound of a male voice continually transmitted, relaying a series of stories and anecdotes and seemingly factual snippets that appeared to offer different viewpoints on the experience of the city. Gradually it became clear that these were composite tales, hybrid narratives formed from fragments gathered and gleaned from diverse sources, at times poetic or abstract, at others anecdotal or even prosaic. Unable to locate any stable or coherent sense of narrative order to the monologue, instead the spoken words functioned as points of momentary illumination, bringing fleeting meaning to the objects and images assembled in the room by weaving them into its stories. At times the tales seemed to make specific references to these things and slowly the objects and images began to operate as a kind of evidence or as props that added a different weight to each story being told. Each element in the space seemed to authenticate or validate the other elements, however it was uncertain whether this contributed to a sense of building clarity or rather added to the feeling of web of fiction being spun.The line between fiction and fact is always a little blurred in all stories about places, however here it seems as though this line was being deliberately questioned, or at least being drawn to attention. On one wall three images documented a LED screen that read, “I don’t believe you … you’re a liar”. The LED screen was placed in various locations, against civic architecture that had some form of inscription or plaque embedded into its surface. It was unclear whether the textual exclamation of disbelief related to these seemingly authoritative statements in the public realm, or whether it was reflected back into the gallery space, as a way of signalling the possibility of other untruths and tall tales closer to home.

In this sense the work seems to question the authority and ‘truth’ of established histories of place, the agreed narrative order that is visibly inscribed into the surface of a city in its civic architecture and collective memory. Without a tour guide’s assurances or curator’s notes ‘small fragments of a place give up nothing more than what you see in front of you.’ As an unmediated encounter, the city is a zone of open possibility where all meanings are up for grabs, where everything can be inscribed and re-inscribed with meaning as it is brought into dialogue with an individual’s experience of place. In these terms the incidental might be elevated to the status of a civic monument, whilst without a programme of remembrance the city’s memorials go unnoticed and might begin to gradually fade away. However, rather than privileging one order of symbols over the other, Anachron-Gen seem to suggest that it is perhaps the interweaving or even interrelationship between the authorised and the marginal, or between fact and fiction, that together add up to the experience of the city. While you Wait invites the visitor to attend to the “extra and other” details that “insert themselves into the accepted framework, the imposed order” of the city; it deftly draws attention to the makeshift and contingent nature of any description of place.