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If anything can be anywhere then, with Dead Pigeon Gallery, art is always somewhere – maybe where you least expect it.
One consequence of the pandemic causing spaces to close their doors is that it’s forced visitors and institutions to really think about what a ‘gallery’ actually is. In one sense a gallery is still a venue, the spaces so many of us are missing. But as we’ve all explored how to access artworks in other ways, it’s become clearer than ever that the idea of a gallery also has a less tangible meaning. There are other elements beyond the four walls that people identify with: community, aesthetic, or attitude.
DEAD PIGEON GALLERY, however, knew this already. Their name comes from the site of their very first exhibition – a space in what was to become The Tapestry but was abandoned before their takeover. It was, in the words of co-manager Jayne Lawless, “full of dead pigeons – I mean, full – and live and shit. Everywhere I looked, there were live ones in the beams and dead ones on the floor.”
It’s to Liverpool’s benefit that the team – a threesome which includes Catherine Dalton and Josie Jenkins – saw the potential of the space for that first exhibition. And when it ended, they came to the realisation that it didn’t have to mean the end of the project. “We can take it wherever. We can just ask for people with spaces to host us, so we became a ‘gallery in residence’,” says Lawless. To date, the project has been in eight separate venues, including an abandoned pub, a terraced house and a Texan fire station.
Their current exhibition, Dockers, is the second to be held in the office of Liverpool Walton MP Dan Carden. With the office currently closed to the public, the exhibition can instead be discovered through a video interview with photographer Dave Sinclair.
Dockers is an exhibition of Sinclair’s photos documenting the 1995-98 lockout. Nobody imagined that when dockers refused to cross a picket line set up by five colleagues it would turn into such a long-running dispute and would, thanks to the story spreading on the then-emerging internet, attract global solidarity. Sinclair became embedded in events as an observer, and the film works as a complementary piece to the exhibition, giving Sinclair space to share his experience and perspective. With ongoing uncertainty around the post-Covid return of jobs, rise of zero-hours contracts and British Gas strikes making headlines, Dockers feels timely.
(Original DPG, London Road)
How the film has come into being typifies two of DPG’s philosophies. It’s been shot by Harvey Morrison, a filmmaker whose first experience of having work exhibited was in DPG’s previous exhibition, High-Vis – which took place in a former bakery in Kensington.
In High-Vis, Morrison’s film was shown in a sequence beside work by Gina Tsang and Mark Leckey, a roster that exemplifies how, while DPG take their art entirely seriously, they’re far from pretentious about who and what is featured.
One of DPG’s driving motivations has always been the lack of space for grassroots artists to show their work. Liverpool may seem spoiled for galleries, but they haven’t traditionally been places where emerging artists are given their first platform. Jenkins explains how, as an artist, “you’re either doing studio shows – if you’re lucky to even have a studio where you can have a show – or you’re working to get an open call. Things are starting to happen, like Output, but there still isn’t enough.”
DPG are particularly concerned with how this affects artists from working-class backgrounds. Lawless and Dalton grew up together around Anfield and Everton and understand how working-class artists may face additional barriers to exhibition, something which they are determined to break down. “It’s not like we ask people for documentation on what class you come from, explains Lawless with shades of humour. “It’s just a statement of intent with regards to people that we know don’t get the same amount of opportunities.”
Consequently, participation in a DPG show is less contingent on formal training, more on passion and execution of a vision. “We put ourselves there as a platform, where other working-class human beings have the confidence to approach us. They go, ‘We’ve never had a show, we’ve never put any work in an exhibition, we haven’t done a degree, but we’re really, really into this’,” says Lawless.
“The other thing that DPG does,” adds Jenkins, “is it puts artists together from very different points in their career. So, in the very first show, there was a painting by Adrian Henri.” Such a lack of hierarchy is rarely seen in group shows and it was certainly an opportunity valued by Dalton, who had just graduated from Liverpool Hope University when she exhibited in that first show.
“It’s a thing that you don’t think will ever happen when you’re just fresh out of uni,” she says. “I went in and said, ‘This is what I did’ and they were all like, ‘Oh my God!’” They’ve found that everyone’s happy to be involved, because even the most established artists understand the value of having a significant place to start. “A lot of the time [established] artists are just really nice,” says Jenkins. “They’re like, ‘Yeah, I was like that once. I want other people to have the opportunities I had’.” The idea continues to work because everyone involved – even Turner Prize winners, such as Leckey – trusts DPG to curate a great show.
The word ‘trust’ comes up multiple times in our conversation, in terms of working with both artists and audiences. DPG want to build a relationship of trust with their audiences, wherever the gallery is. Wherever you visit one of their exhibitions, you’ll find conversation. Whatever question or opinion you have, whether you’re visiting as a regular art-goer or popping into the new space across the road out of curiosity, the team always take the time to make you feel welcome. This shouldn’t feel as revolutionary as it does, Jenkins believes. “I’ve always had a feeling in art galleries,” she says. “You step in and, more often than not, it’s just silence. Why can’t someone just say hi and chat? It should be so obvious!”
(Oakfield Road/Homebaked CLT)
In part, this is a result of DPG’s itinerant nature. Though borne out of necessity, one of the advantages of the approach is that they find audiences in a very different way – quite literally wherever the gallery finds itself. During my own visits to DPG’s various sites over the years, I’ve seen and heard about many of these different interactions. Perhaps somebody making their way down L4’s Oakfield Road decided to see what’s going on in a previously abandoned house. Or somebody working across the road pops in on their lunch break, who wouldn’t have time to get to a city-centre gallery. Out of such off-the-cuff interactions in the places where people actually live, and art is something of a surprising presence, have arisen conversations and relationships which Lawless describes as “literally life-changing”. It means that DPG can lay down a marker for what it means to have an artistic experience which might be very different to those the casual visitor might have had in the past.
Lawless is aware of the barriers people put up for themselves. “With the type of schools we went to… you will literally be bullied for being interested in art or poetry or music or dance. What I’m always interested in is that we’re stripping it back. So, yeah, you see these incredible images. But then you also see that it’s just a human being who made this. And this human being might inspire you to do as well.”
This is certainly true of Dockers, in which many of the subjects are still living and connected to the city – including Dan Carden’s own father, who was involved in the strikes. The DPG team were conscious that the personal nature of this subject may have pitfalls, as well as power. “We were worried because it’s someone’s nan, or someone’s mum that you’re putting photos up of, especially when you start putting it on social media,” Lawless says. In fact, these personal connections ended up starting more conversations and engaging more people in the show. Dalton explains how “people are seeing their own fathers and their uncles and their grandads. And they’ve seen pictures up that they’ve probably never seen before and been really quite emotional about it. It’s a nice legacy.”
(High Vis, Kensington / Photo: Joel Hansen)
This summer, DPG will be collaborating with the Fans Supporting Foodbanks mobile pantry to bring another of Lawless’ projects, North End Sketch Club, into DPG and to sites around Liverpool. “For two days a week, I’ll be with sketch club at the pantry. We’ll have guests, people who can do anything that we can sketch,” Lawless explains. The seeds of the idea were sown by the Fans Supporting Foodbanks team, with whom Lawless has volunteered, when imagining the possibilities for what the mobile pantry could be. “It’s about breaking down barriers and stigmas about going to something like a pantry or food bank,” Lawless continues. “There’s other things going on at the same time. It’s positive – and it’s frigging fun as well!”
Having participated in Sketch Club as both artist and model, I can attest to that. North End Sketch Club is less about whether you think of yourself as a ‘good’ artist than about the buzz that comes from getting stuck into creative activity, the positive atmosphere that generates. And why can’t that atmosphere be created wherever people go? This, after all, is at the heart of DPG’s ethos: “anything can be anywhere”. They break out of ideas of where art ‘should’ happen and who ‘can’ participate. Instead, they’ve gone from strength-to-strength by being open to all possibilities and participants. Whether it’s creating films, taking over abandoned spaces or opening opportunities to art making to whoever wants to get involved, the example set by DPG of what the art world can achieve is a breath of fresh air.
Dockers can be viewed on YouTube via the link below.