Locating the mythic nature in pride of place, Stephanie Gavan speaks to visual artist Nick Smith about his latest work which displays Liverpool as a city of contradictions following a cyclical path of unrest and reinvention.
“It’s not that special” recalls NICK SMITH, the Bootle-bred artist behind Output Gallery’s latest exhibition, Where were you when it was shit?, “at least, that’s what I used to think”.
He’s talking about the collective enchantment of a city and his once lone disbelief; about myth, pride and distance. “You grow up here and everyone tells you it’s the best city in the world, but you don’t quite believe it, or at least I didn’t,” he continues. “But when you come away from it and look back, there’s something there, it’s a very special thing.”
It’s that thing, in its capricious ambiguity, which lingers at the core of Smith’s newest work. Perhaps too, in the psyche of a city at large, where the creeping presence of history is always cemented in the present. Even now, in a somewhat cyclical turn of events, it teeters ever so cautiously along the sharp edge of the future.
Where were you when it was shit? consists of a split screen video charting Smith’s youth against the social and political turbulence of the city between 1974-1996. A surrogate Bildungsroman told through found footage, it draws upon the social realist scenes of Lowry to trace a shift from a Liverpool that was, to the city that exists today. “It’s about how a city can programme your character, a way to understand more about myself through the context in which I grew up in,” Smith elaborates. Located somewhere in between a landscape painting and a DJ set, the film evokes the spirit of a place by summoning the brittle fragments of memory that come to constitute identity. It marks a return for Smith, who debuted the film at Output Gallery in November after 15 years away from the city. A space that works exclusively with creatives from or based in Merseyside, supporting the artists still here while beckoning others back.
Dry, cool and fairly clear. The uncanny crackle of old Granada forecasts usher viewers backward. The elements are at odds with the atmospheric pressure of advancing scenes, as 1974’s Kirkby rent strike unfolds beside the stringy lights and blurred faces of Quadrant Park, the city’s first superclub in it’s unlikely Bootle home. There’s a mirrored sense of restlessness as streets lined with agitated police and equally tense protesters clash against jittery bodies on the edge of ecstasy, both anticipating crescendo. Where one dances itself into an oceanic abandon, the other is direct in its political resolve, but where method differs, the core desire is matched. In each frame, a throbbing duplication of will as people grasp at the potential to transform and transcend material reality in the face of hostile social circumstances. “It’s about the shift in generations. The rent strikes felt like the pinnacle of things being shit, whereas Quadrant Park came at a point when Liverpool was beginning to understand it’s modern identity more through youth culture.”
It’s a shift disclosed here in the move from traditional forms of activism to a renewed kind of pleasure politics. Rave, especially, emerged as a counterpoint to Thatcherism, for which the squandering of time and wasting of economic potential figured as the ultimate taboo. As ego melts into the borderless collective, staying up all night in defiance of the working week, and refusing to pay rent start to look strikingly similar. A familiar repudiation of conservative politics that has come to define an ongoing era of this city’s history; a resistance through communal ritual.
Smith’s pairing of events mirror, reflect and distort meaning. At times they slide into one another through replicated gestures and ‘beat matched’ editing, while other clips stutter into contradiction, revealing a disparity of worlds. “Liverpool is very strong in how it represents itself, though it’s not a straightforward place, it’s full of complexities,” Smith suggests. When Michael Heseltine was sent up to Liverpool as the ‘Minister for the Mersey’ the city was at boiling point. By 1979 it was described as an ‘Imperial mausoleum’, and over the next two years, as unemployment shot up to 51 per cent, tensions between the police and L8’s minority communities also continued to swell, underpinned by a worsening socio-economic situation. Then came the riots; an inevitable rupture.
Smith’s film shows buildings hemorrhaging smoke, the silhouette of helmets and riot shields lit up against flames, a disenfranchised Black teenager pleading: “We don’t want no riots, all we want is jobs, employment, justice.” Bloodied faces and bodies on stretchers sit uncomfortably next to footage from 1984’s International Garden Festival, where well-dressed people stroll through a botanical utopia complete with white marble sculptures and grecian columns. The contrast is stark, order and chaos, light and dark, enhanced more so by the stern RP voice of Kenneth Oxford, Merseyside’s then head of police, whose presence hangs above the two scenes with a cold detachment from the eruptive desire of the crowd.
Built upon a former oil terminal, Festival Gardens was Heseltine’s attempt to clean up the Mersey in order to stimulate new investment and economic growth. “Apparently a lot of money that was meant to be used to develop Toxteth was used for the garden festival. It’s that relationship between the reality of the city and it’s outward projection,” Smith explains.
Despite its proximity to L8 (situated on the border of Dingle, though more at home in the leafier suburb of Aigburth and L17), the gardens were of little benefit to its unemployed population, leading to a wide-held suspicion that the initiative was little more than a token gesture within a city in need of serious economic regeneration.
“Liverpool has always been a city of contradictions for me”, Smith recalls, reflecting on childhood outings with his gran where they’d venture from the worldly grandeur of the Walker to the stench of raw meat and harsh strip lighting of St. John’s. The contrast of the sleek surface and underlying reality is a potent metaphor throughout. In the final pairing, Richard and Judy sip champagne amongst a host of producers to celebrate their last broadcast in Liverpool’s Granada studios, while five miles along the river, the dockers had initiated what would become one of the longest strikes in UK history – lasting just short of three years. “They were happening at the same time, showing a shift in what Liverpool is built on, from the docks as an import/export hub, to this rebranding as a shiny new city, with Granada being the main cultural output on screen for the North West.”
As the trade unions collapsed and their power diminished, Richard and Judy became symbolic of a move from hard power to soft power. “They were sort of the monarchy of Liverpool at one point,” he jests. The city was forced to reimagine itself over the coming decade, placing tourism and leisure at the heart of its new post-industrial economy.
Where were you when it was shit? beams into the past while carrying an undeniable urgency in the current moment. “If you look at cycles of history, every 20-30 years big shifts happen,” Smith notes. And it certainly feels like that time is upon us.
In September, Liverpool became the first region to move into ‘Tier 3’ restrictions, slipping back into its well-worn costume of the outlier. Speculation of a second ‘managed decline’ unfurled as the city was once again left to fend largely for itself, far away from the orbit of Westminster. Liverpool city council was forced to initiate a crowdfunder to pay for the school meals of 20,000 children in the region, where the child poverty rate exceeds 20 per cent, as hospitality staff were cheated out of full furlough subsequently offered to the rest of the country.
Now, as the culture venues our city has rebuilt itself upon lie shuttered and lifeless, Liverpool may be forced to re-imagine itself once more. Smith reminds us of something that Scousers have always known; that transformation is impossible without the integration of traces leftover from the past. The past of a city that refused to give up on itself when everyone else had. A city which, in her tender spirit of resilience, offers hope of a future to believe in.
Where Were You When It Was Shit was shown at Output Gallery. Clips from the works can be found on Smith’s YouTube channel.