The starting point for writers when embarking on discussion about Blackpool is often to begin with bawdy souvenirs, impenetrable confectionery and antiquated transport. However, finding Supercollider in the world’s most famous seaside resort is to forget so many tired clichés and discover an unlikely oasis of critically engaged art in the shadow of the tower.
It’s impossible to ignore the fact that Blackpool’s reputation for relatively low rent entertainment and lower drinks prices makes for an eyebrow-raising collision with exciting, emerging visual art. Supercollider founder and Director/Curator, Tom Ireland agrees over the course of a short conversation in the clean, white space of their adopted gallery space, that it might not quite be a match made in heaven. However, as he surveys the latest exhibition he also points out that, given a little more thought, art and Blackpool are one and the same.
He says: “Blackpool is like a contemporary art work in itself, and it shouldn’t really exist. But it does keep existing and it keeps surviving. You can see things that you would never in your life expect to see. Its history is in the ‘other’, the whole place is a performance, and nothing here is that real.”
Anyone who has spent any length of time there can find little fault with the assertion that the fairground that hugs the Irish Sea is indeed some work of art. That Tom has managed to create a contemporary arts organisation, that remains fearless in pursuit of new artists with new ideas, in such a town is an admirable feat. It’s one which comes from the desire to fill a gaping, obvious void that he found when he returned from Carlisle where he’d studied art at the Cumbria Institute of the Arts (now University of Cumbria).
He explains: “I was making work in Carlisle and could show work at Uni, in the studios, but we were always bound by academic rigour in some way. The idea came that maybe we should start a gallery, supported by a straight talking lecturer called Patricia Ellis. She made it clear that if we wanted people to notice what you’re doing, you have to make them. She never treated us like students, always like we were artists.”
“Carlisle is similar to Blackpool in what it has as a cultural offer.” he continues. ”There’s Tullie House up there that has an interesting programme and it has a good art school, or at least it was a good art school, I’m not sure what it’s like now. It’s an hour and a half from Glasgow, an hour and a quarter from Newcastle, so it’s connected. We were aware of that connectivity, but then the internet made anything possible, so we could find like-minded people very quickly and developed our own gallery space from there.”
The gallery space that Tom and his fellow students created whilst at University gradually expanded to include other artists from outside the academic establishment and beyond Carlisle, with Tom taking on more responsibility for its programme. It was experience that would stand him in good stead when returning home after claiming his degree and finding that there was nowhere nearby where he, as a practicing artist, had a chance of being noticed. Gradually he started again from scratch.
He explains: “The starting point for Supercollider came when Katie Wade who was a year below me at Carlisle, also came back to Blackpool. We were talking about the lack of availability of places to show work and to see work other than at The Grundy. When there’s someone else who understands the same issue, you kind of look out for each other and if you see something good then you tell them. Later on she said that she’d got a friend who owns a company that’s rented a load of space, but too much for the size of their business. He said we could use the space for free, so we did.”
“We spent a summer scraping woodchip off the walls with the intention of painting it white and, eventually, once all the woodchip was gone just decided not to paint it instead. We left it bare, it was orange and I think that kind of helped us as we became synonymous with having this orange space – we were so anti-white cube. In November 2008 we had our first show, so we got artists we knew who were in Blackpool, or were from Blackpool and had moved away. It was called Collide Now! Young Supercollider.”
With a name chosen walking across a supermarket car park, coming easily to mind after hearing a radio report about the atom-busting CERN Large Hadron Collider, and a near ready-made space in the centre of town, it all sounds so easy. Clearly not, as Tom admits that it would only be a show of extreme naivety to assume that people in Blackpool, or indeed audiences from a wider catchment area of the resort, would simply roll over and see his way of thinking.
He explains: “There’s realism that it’ll be a harder slog. It would be naïve to think that you’re just going to change people’s way of thinking, particularly in a place like Blackpool, which has such a non-art agenda. To think you can change it is utopian. We went from putting on one show and nobody turning up, to putting on another show and loads of people turning up. Then we’d putting on another show and nobody turned up again. There isn’t a formula for guaranteeing success, but the reaction has sometimes been emphatic. This show, for example, The Royal Standard Love In, has had a great reaction because there’s physicality to it; there are things that you can actually see.”
Stood in Supercollider’s current gallery space, which is exists within a hub for Fylde Creatives, another admirable effort by the Local Authorities to get the town functioning more positively; it feels like a project that’s very much under control – professional even. Perhaps a million miles from the chipboard strewn, makeshift former office space they once inhabited, it has all the gravitas of a purpose-built gallery. What difference has the change in premises made to Tom and his approach to curating shows?
“In the previous space it felt more academic, so there was more video work and things like that. There was a great show by Matthew Mackisak, which was a projection and a sound piece that never existed at the same time. The projection would cut out for fifteen minutes and you’d have a small book to read for that space of time. So, it became a narrative that ended up tripping over itself. It was a great show but it wasn’t for Blackpool, really. Having a window onto the street in this space has altered the programme to include more, hard visual content. So my looking for artists has shifted, not in the level of critical engagement, but in the type of work. My ability to infect consciousness, of what is possible within art, can still be done with a visual piece rather than it being just about ideas.”
So, with Blackpool looking in on Supercollider more than ever, by virtue of the giant window that now invites people to discover the curiosities within, artists involved with Supercollider are increasingly encouraged to return the compliment, give in to curiosity and explore the rich tapestry of life by the coast. Rather than exist as a sideshow itself, and give artists a mere stop off on the way to somewhere else, Tom has a policy of encouraging as many of his collaborators as possible to step outside the gallery and interact with Blackpool.
He says: ““I always try and work with artists who will try and work with the town. I walked round the corner from the gallery the other morning, and there was this low sea mist and I could hear this tinny drum beat. As I rounded the corner I saw this dwarf playing a Bontempi organ through the window of this bar, singing in a falsetto voice. So, I went and bought a carton of milk and, as I came back round the corner there was a seven foot transsexual having a cigarette. There are things like that that are a product of this richness that artists really respond to, so it’s never been difficult to get an artist to respond to the town.”
Offering a prime example of Blackpool’s perhaps obvious charms luring in one of their artists, he recalls: “Patricia Ellis’ show featured work that looked primarily into people who live vicariously, which is what Blackpool is full of. We went out one Saturday night loaded with cameras and enough money to last us the night. She was snapping away all night and she caught someone throwing up against a wall, so that became a painting. She caught up with a bunch of women who bent over for a photo and they had club stickers stuck on each of their arse cheeks, so that became a painting. She captured the carnival of Blackpool.”
So after five years back at home, and roughly three years at the helm of Blackpool’s only real thoroughfare for visual arts ideas that exists off the beaten track, Tom’s endeavours are beginning to pay off with an increase in the number of approaches he gets from potential collaborators. If more post and e-mails are a measure of success, he says, then he’s doing OK at the moment. Having shown artists who are enjoying further success on a national scale, such as Sheffield’s James Clarkson and Liverpool’s Emily Speed, the calibre of Supercollider’s programming can’t be faulted. But what about Tom’s personal favourites from his time at the helm?
He says: “Really nice things have been the Murray O’Grady show and the one that featured Andrew Maughan and Graeme Durant – both of the first shows in this space, they were good ‘announcers’. Working with some of my friends, including Noel Clueit, Carlie-Rose Laverack and Fiona Shaw has been a great opportunity. Fiona has subsequently gone on to do her MA at the Royal College, so it’s nice to think that you may have offered something to that process in some way. The overarching, nicest thing has been able to work with interesting people. Being able to work with someone like Samantha Donnelly, for example. I remember the proposal coming through from her and all the images were from her Ceri Hand (Liverpool/London Gallerist) show. I was like ‘fucking hell, why would you want to show here when you’re represented by Ceri Hand?’”
Tom insists that Supercollider has no grand plan, no ambitions to cement itself as anything other than an enabler, giving artists with something to say somewhere to say it. He cites Curb Your Enthusiasm, the unscripted US comedy, as the nearest thing he has to a blueprint for success, happy to work within a vague framework, but with no confirmed content.
As the conversation comes to a close, talk turns to what might happen in the long run, given the success of the first few years of what has been a labour, not only of love, but of dire need for a space that engages and inspires local artists. For a split second it appears that Tom is going to let his ambitions loose and suggest a more permanent manifestation of Supercollider. Somewhat typically, the picture in his head is for a return to somewhere closer to where it all started.
He concludes: “I could see myself taking up a space, but it would be more in line with the rawer aesthetic of the first space. Mainly because you can work with that a little but more freely, put on a show and then just delete it and move on to the next. Unstructured structure is at the core of things, I just find it more exciting to make things a bit more organic.”
Images (from top):
1. Fiona Shaw. The irony of seeking refuge in a fictive history is not lost on me, 2009. Installation View.
2. Murray O’Grady. Familiars, 2011. Installation View.
3. Noel Clueit. Lost Wisdom, 2009. Installation View.
4. Collide Now! Young Supercollider, 2008. Installation View.
5. Matthew Mackisak. Initial and Reprise, 2010. Installation View.
6. Andrew Maughan and Graeme Durant. I don’t even like macaroons, 2011. Installation View.
7. Samantha Donnelly. Chaste glances signify missed chances, 2010. Installation View.
8. Tom Ireland, Supercollider. November 2011.
Info: Supercollider Contemporary Art Projects is an artist run initiative based in Blackpool committed to the dissemination of contemporary visual arts practice in the town, by presenting a diverse and dynamic programme of temporary contemporary art projects. Tom Ireland is Director/Curator of Supercollider and a practicing artist who lives and works in Blackpool, UK.
Leave a Reply
You must be logged in to post a comment.