Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Soaking in the atmosphere of the Lit and Phil

I will be taking part in a 3-person exhibition at the Literature and Philosophical Society (Lit and Phil) in March, and I am eager to get a sense of the place, how it is used and who uses it. I spent the afternoon soaking up the atmosphere and talking to people in the Lit and Phil.
On arrival I headed straight to the oval table towards the back of the main library room. The table is positioned in close proximity to a coffee machine, biscuit tin and 'the hatch', one of the features that distinguishes this building from other libraries. The hatch is run by volunteers who take it in turns to serve tea and coffee and biscuits. When the hatch is not manned, there is a tea and coffee machine and a biscuit tin that people can help themselves to.

As I sat at the table eating my packed lunch (yes, eating in the library is permitted!), I soon realised that there was no way that I could concentrate on reading the book that I had picked up as there were interesting conversations taking place around me.

Over the next few hours, a steady stream of people, ranging from a 3-year old to a 93-year old came and sat at the table. When asked what his favourite thing about the Lit and Phil is, Peter, the 3 year old boy, answered 'biscuits!' The importance of biscuits became clear as every person who came to sit at the table brought with them a packet of biscuits of some shape or form, and shared these. I was fortunate enough to meet Paul, the current Chair of the board of governors, who gave me a potted history of the Lit and Phil, from its conception in 1793 through the centuries to today.

Throughout our conversation other members sat at the table would interject and give their own anecdotes and offer other information to add to my understanding of what is obviously an important society to many people. There are not many places of this kind where one is given such a genuine and personal welcome, be offered food, partake in interesting conversation and be given a tour of the building by one of the members. This place is unique.

Over the past 15 years the society has experienced severe financial difficulties and at one point its existence was on tenterhooks. It is apparent that its survival relies on the passion and determination of the members and this drive ensures that the society retains its core functions - as a 'conversation club' and library.

The two functions exist simultaneously, although not always without tensions. In the most recent comments books, an abundance of glowingly positive remarks are punctuated by expressions of frustrations at the lack of silence in the library. Mike, (a current member) spoke about he regards the society as a social space, somewhere to talk about issues and ideas. In the 25 years that he has been a member, he has only borrowed 3 books. For him, the library aspect is not what attracts him, but the homely and comfortable atmosphere.

The society organises an impressive events programme, including musical events, lectures and art events. For example, in 2013 Dawn Felicia Knox, along with Irene Brown, Sally Madge, Iris Priest, Isabel Lima, Stephen Livingstone, Katy Cole and Benjamin Lawson were involved in Returning to the Philosophers’ Table, an integrated arts project that featured art exhibitions at the Lit & Phil and the Gallery of Wonder: Great North Museum along with cross-disciplinary collaborations and events.

For more information about Returning to the Philosophers’ Table, visit

I asked some of the members for their thoughts on some of the previous art exhibitions and installations that have taken place in the Lit and Phil. Positive comments were made in relation to Returning to the Philosophers’ Table. I get the impression the members I met were pretty open and are keen to attract new people. Tony mentioned that he would like to see a tandoori kitchen installed downstairs!

As much as I am excited about the space, I am also a little daunted by the challenge ahead. I feel, rightly or wrongly, a sense of responsibility to the members who regard the place as home. The context is already so loaded and full, and the atmosphere is very unique, and I want to use this to its full potential. How I will do this is unknown...

Watch this space!

Sunday, 28 December 2014

The Hepworth Gallery, Wakefield

Whilst in Yorkshire over Christmas, I made my first visit to The Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield. The building is divided into 10 gallery spaces, and is home to a collection of over 5000 works. At the core of the collection is a significant group of work by modern British artists including, most notably, Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore who were both born in the Wakefield district. A section of the gallery is devoted to work from this collection.

We visited on a day when there was an outdoor ice carving workshop.

In Toby Ziegler's exhibition titled Expanded Narcissistic Envelope, the artist has created new work in response to the WW1 plaster frieze from Wakefield's collection, No Man's Land, 1918-19 by war memorial artist Charles Sergeant Jagger. On a formal level, Ziegler has echoed the shape of the frieze in his aluminium sheet which is elegantly supported by an aluminium framework. This framework also connects to the next sculptural element in the installation, a giant foot made out of cardboard.

Whereas I could relate both of these elements to the source material, I found it difficult to see the link to the 3D printer that produces a Newell teapot every day. This final element of the installation seems disparate, and the link made in the textual information supporting the exhibition is very tangental, almost like it is something that the artist is interested in, but that has no relation to the work produced for this show. 

As my friend and I contemplated the exhibition, we watched as many of the visitors were automatically drawn to the 3D printer without even considering the rest of the work. On the day that we visited, the 3D printer was not working, but I'm not sure whether this would have affected my enjoyment of the piece had this not been the case. I found myself rather frustrated by the fact that the technical equipment was what most people were interested in, yet I didn't think that it was an important element of the installation.

Alexandra Bircken's solo exhibition Eskalation demonstrates her fascination with materials such as latex, leather, wood and foam.

Folkert De Jong has drawn upon the collections of armour and contemporary weapons held by the Royal Armouries in his exhibition The Holy Land.

The group exhibition Sculpting the line: British Sculptors as Printmakers explores the links between sculpture and print. Although the surface of prints is often two-dimensional, printmaking as a process can involve methods commonly used by sculptors such as engraving, or carving, and prints can be two-dimensional representations of three dimensional forms. It was fascinating to see how artists have used both approaches in their practice.

Carving into a surface

History of the Lit and Phil

The Literature and Philosophical (Lit and Phil) Society was founded early in 1793 as a ‘conversation club’, with an annual subscription of one guinea. The subjects of the conversations - and the books that supported them - were wide-ranging, but religion and politics were prohibited.

From its outset, the Society had an enterprising, inquisitive and liberal nature: the first women members were admitted by 1804, various groundbreaking demonstrations of new technology took place, such as George Stephenson’s miners’ safety lamp in 1815. In 1820, The Newcastle upon Tyne Society for the gradual abolition of Slavery in the British Dominions was established at a meeting held in the Society’s rooms. The society’s lecture theatre was the first public room to be lit by electric light, during a lecture by Sir Joseph Swan on October 20th 1880.

In 1822 the foundation stone of the current building was laid by the Duke of Sussex, followed by a grand celebration and meal with 35 toasts and 53 speeches; it was finally opened in 1825.

Books were always at the heart of the Society’s interests, even though some early practices seem strange today. The first catalogues were sorted by the size of books, and it was only in 1891 that the decision was made to purchase novels; nobody seemed any the worse for this radical move excepting possibly, as one distinguished member pointed out, “those unfortunate enough to read them”. Novels now form a significant part of the collection of 150,000 books, and an active bookbinding and restoration programme manages the condition of the older volumes.

During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the Society became involved in other spheres of activity. Chief amongst these were it's active contribution to the University Extension scheme and the establishment of a thriving lecture programme that continues to this day. Over the years it has attracted many eminent speakers; a scan through the list reveals names such as Oscar Wilde, Edith Sitwell, F.R. Leavis, Mary Kingsley, Dorothy Sayers and John Betjeman.

The Society also has a heavy involvement with music. Some one hundred years ago the library started to acquire scores, and in 1942 an official gramophone library was created that formed the basis of the current collection - one of the finest in the North of England.

The Society has been at the heart of activities in the region for over two hundred years - with interests in the arts, music and science. In 2012 membership of the Society reached over 2000, and there have been tens of thousands of visitors.

Notable members include:

W.G. Armstrong
President of the Society 1860-1900
Inventor, industrialist and businessman.

Sid Chaplin
Vice President of the Society 1976-1985
Prize winning writer and founder member of Northern Arts.

John Dobson

Ruth Dodds
Author, councillor and the first woman 'Freeman' of Newcastle.

Richard Grainger

Robert Stephenson
President of the Society 1855-1860
Mechanical and structural engineer.

Joseph Wilson Swan
President of the Society 1911-1914
Pharmacist, chemist, electrical engineer and inventor.

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

More Hi-Fructose images from flickr

After a friend suggested that I look at Hi-Fructose imagery on flickr, I have found numerous other images as visual research. Here are a selection:

Monday, 22 December 2014

Winter Solstice at The Lit and Phil

Mariam Rezaei is the current Composer in Residence at the Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle, and has been working with ZENDEH, an organisation led by Artistic Director Nazli Tabatabai-Khatambakhsh that produces high quality cross art form productions with creative engagement programmes that are culturally eclectic, unforgettable and attract new audiences.

ZENDEH is a Farsi word meaning ALIVE, and the organisation adopts an approach that listens, breathes and transforms. It values creative collaboration, sharing and the imagination.


Inspired by Shab-e Yalda, the Persian Winter Solstice, ZENDEH held a Winter Soltice event at the Lit and Phil consisting of poetry readings, storytelling, workshops, art, music and theatre.

I went along to help out and participate in the evenings happenings.

ZENDEH's next production, CINEMA, was at the core of the event with the artists and musicians responding to the tragic event of August 1978 in which 422 people died in a fire that happened in Cinema Rex, Iran.

I took part in a workshop ran by multi-disciplinary musician and new media artist Sean Cotterill. We made primitive synthesisers producing different tones and then used these musical devices in a performance. We were given a graph depicting the population statistics of Abadan, which we interpreted as a musical score, and over a period of 5 minutes we made a range of sounds with the synthesisers. As the population rose, the tendency was for us to make our devices louder and more intense.

Yvette Hawkins presented an installation of cut-out paper scenes illuminated in the dark and quiet downstairs library.

Christopher Younger invited visitors to interact with, and add to his three-screened artwork.

The evening ended with poetry readings that were read from the balconies overlooking the library.

Bearing in mind that I will be participating in a small group exhibition in the Lit and Phil in March, I was interested to discover the audience that attended the event, and was surprised to find that the majority had never been in the Lit and Phil before, but following this special occasion, they certainly intend to return.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Suggestions please

I have been thinking about ways in which to add more unpredictability into my artwork, and one way I have thought about doing so is to get other people to give me instructions, or dictate certain elements about what I do. 

I am looking for words/items that fit the following categories:

PROCESS e.g. to build, cut, sand, carve, fold...

MATERIAL e.g. paper, jelly, string, cotton wool...

ANOTHER LIMITATION e.g with eyes closed, on one leg, in 1 minute

Any help suggestions would be greatly appreciated!

Please email them to:


Friday, 19 December 2014

Hi-Fructose Magazine on Flickr

My friend sent me these fun images that he found on flickr and that made him think of me

Nick Forbes: we were whistleblowers for what austerity meant for the arts

Nick Forbes: we were whistleblowers for what austerity meant for the arts 

After the Newcastle upon Tyne council leader dealt with cuts, the city’s theatre companies have been forced to adapt or die

“We live in an age of cuts … We are a working-class town, that’s our strength – and in the current climate, our weakness.” So said the deputy leader of the council as he addressed the press conference. His task is to decide how and where to save £64m: Sure Start, the museum, libraries, disabled care, street lighting ...

This is not a scene from real life but from Hope, Jack Thorne’s close-to-the-bone play about local-authority cuts, which recently opened at the Royal Court in London. But Nick Forbes, the leader of Newcastle upon Tyne council, sounded uncannily like the drama’s main character when we met in his grand, 1960s panelled office in the city’s Civic Centre – its bold modernist architecture a remnant of a more confident age, before cuts of 44% from central government sent a chilly blast through its elegant courtyards.

“We’ve cut our play service and youth service,” Forbes said. “We have had to reduce the libraries. We have cut sport and leisure. We have reduced support for older people; we’ve cut bin collections; we’ve cut street cleaning. We have lost our flower programme in the city. We’ve cut graffiti removal. We’ve lost getting on for 1,200 cuts from the council.” Newcastle lopped £37m from its spending in 2013-14, £38m this year, and more is to come.

It also cut its cultural budget. In the autumn of 2012, the council published a draft three-year – instead of the usual one-year – budget, which projected a cut to funding for arts organisations of 100% from 2015.
Tommy Knight (Jake) and Tom Georgeson (George) in Hope by Jack Thorne. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/Tristram Kenton

Arts leaders in the rest of the country looked on anxiously: would other Labour councils “do a Newcastle” and declare culture an unaffordable luxury?

Cuts to local-authority grants felt like a last straw, for they came on top of a 30% reduction in Arts Council England’s budget, delivered in the 2010 comprehensive spending review by the then culture secretary Jeremy Hunt. The keynote of the coalition’s cultural policy has been this: austerity measures, combined with injunctions by Hunt (and his successors Maria Miller and Sajid Javid) for the arts to find more financial support through philanthropy.

Among those affected by Newcastle’s draft budget were Northern Stage, Tyneside Cinema and Live Theatre, where Lee Hall, the writer of Billy Elliot and The Pitmen Painters, learned his craft as a youngster. They were furious. Culture was being disproportionately targeted, they felt. Furthermore, a total cut could have meant Arts Council England pulling out of Newcastle, since its policy is that it will not act as a sole public funder in any area – a move that would have led to the collapse of most of the city’s main cultural organisations. A vocal campaign from the north-east’s artistic diaspora – Lee Hall, Neil Tennant, Sting and Pat Barker among them – swung into action with open letters and attacks on the council’s stance.

Two years on and the council has indeed removed culture from its budget, effective from April 2015. But, after an intervention from the shadow culture secretary, Harriet Harman, it found about £600,000 a year (skimmed off from interest on loans and dividends from Newcastle airport) to put into a new charitable Culture Investment Fund, to which arts organisations in the city can apply for grants. It is only 50% of the old budget, but better than what Alison Clark-Jenkins of Arts Council England has called “the symbolically and practically disastrous 100% proposal”, which would have meant “the closure of some of the best-known institutions in the country”. The new fund also aims to raise money from donations from individuals – following the thrust of Conservative cultural policy, which encourages arts organisations to aggressively pursue philanthropic donations.

Unusually for a Labour politician, Forbes is comfortable talking about his cultural hinterland; he told me how much he was looking forward to performing a baritone solo in a concert with a local choir (“singing keeps me sane”). But despite his personal attachment to the arts, when we met two years on he said he had no regrets about the row. “We were the whistleblowers for what the government’s austerity programme means for a range of services, but particularly arts and culture ... As often happens with whistleblowers, people didn’t believe us, didn’t believe the scale of the cuts. We faced abuse and criticism. [But] I still think it was the right thing to do.”
Maria Crocker (L) and Meghan Doyle from the Letter Room theatre company at Northern Stage.Photograph: Craig Connor/NNP/North News & Pictures Ltd

On the ground, it has been a case of adapt or die. Lorne Campbell is the artistic director of Northern Stage. One of his means of diversifying has been by harnessing the notion that “creativity” is itself a commodity. Over a pre-rehearsal coffee, he told me he hires himself out to lead workshops on creative management for business executives, raising about £50,000 a year, or around half a production budget. He would like to see the new Culture Investment Fund work – but pointed out gently, as did others, that his organisation has been energetically fundraising for years now.

He believed, he said, that a fundamental part of his job was providing a conducive environment for artists who want to make work in the north-east – their presence in turn enriching Newcastle’s civic life. But, he said: “That ecosystem is in danger of collapse. We are not many salami slices away from having to make a dramatic change to what we do.” What would that change consist of? He shrugged. “Producing a Christmas show every year cast with people who aren’t from here, and acting as a receiving house for productions from elsewhere the rest of the year. An utterly pointless exercise.”

Northern Stage provides, at present at least, support for young theatre companies. One such, Camisado Club, is made up of eight young performer-writers, all fairly fresh out of college, all “hellbent on staying in the north-east and making work”, according to company member Caroline Liversidge.

For these 20-something artists, the notion of a well-funded arts environment is, said Liversidge, “a myth – like: ‘In days of yore there was funding.’ ” She works five zero-hours-contract jobs to make ends meet, and fits her artistic work around them. Camisado Club’s first show, Send More Paper, about murderous wives in Hungary after the first world war, was a success, and had a short tour, including to London, but making it work was a struggle – they crowdfunded to get themselves to London, called in favours, sought support from friends and family. Getting the eight company members in a room together – when they are all working shifts to pay the rent – is an achievement in itself. Fellow company member Jamie Tansley said: “We are looking at ways we can sustain ourselves by charging for education projects. You not only have to make it work but become a business, and that’s a little scary. But we will find a way, because we have the hustle.”

Jim Beirne of Live Theatre. Photograph: Mark Pinder/Mark Pinder

Meghan Doyle and Maria Crocker are part of another young theatre company, the Letter Room, which has performed at Latitude, Bestival and the Edinburgh fringe. According to Doyle: “We made our last show on no budget and no sleep.” All accomplished musicians, they perform as a band to make money to support their main work. “It is hard,” she added, “devising, producing, making the website, performing, working our other jobs.” They are a determined pair, committed to staying in the north-east – where the flipside of the lack of funding is cheap rent and a feeling of shared artistic enterprise with their peers. “It feels like something is brewing in Newcastle,” said Crocker. But, said Doyle: “We can’t continue making work for no money. There is a point where you have to say, you’ve got to live.”

A spirit of enterprise is also at work at Live Theatre. When I visited in early 2013, I saw how the work of the 150-seat theatre was supported by a gastropub, the Broad Chare, and rental income from a set of offices converted from a schoolhouse. Its chief executive, Jim Beirne, had used his own “hustle” to make money. The Broad Chare makes Live £100,000 a year, enough for an entire production budget. The schoolhouse makes £35,000, enough for an education project.

Since then, Beirne has masterminded the purchase of more buildings clustered around the theatre, including a vacant plot that faces the Tyne. With the help of European funds and loans from the council, he is now running a £10m project that includes building a new office block to rent, creating an outdoor stage and park, and converting an almshouse into a children’s literary centre. The piling for the new offices is complete; the steel framework is due to rise in January and the structure should be built by September. “The point is to create an asset on our balance sheet that provides an income to spend on our mission,” said Beirne. Initially, the yield is expected to be £150,000-£200,000 per annum.

I asked Beirne what his background was – expecting him to tell me of an MBA or a career in business. He laughed. “I trained as a lute player and composer,” he said. Was Live in danger, I wondered, of being buffeted by competing values? Would its business concerns conflict with its artistic ambitions? Would Live become, to misquote an unfortunate advertising slogan adopted by the V&A in the 1980s, “an ace gastropub with quite a nice theatre attached”? He said: “It’s just a tool to deliver what we do. Of course we have to be robust about what we stand for and what our values are. If we didn’t do this, what the fuck else would we do?”

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Playtime at Cornerhouse, Manchester

Playtime exhibition at Cornerhouse, Manchester

For this exhibition the artists took inspiration from Cornerhouse’s iconic brick structure and Jacques Tati’s 1967 comedy film Playtime which follows an American tourist and a befuddled Frenchman as they negotiate a bafflingly modern Paris.

Niklas Goldbach's Habita C3B depicts a nearly deserted urban environment populated by a handful of identical men engaged in an unknown mission. The characters chase a man who breaks from the group through the labyrinthine architecture of Paris's Front de Seine district.

The film is shown on a loop and although it can be watch from any point, I was pleased to have entered at a time when the characters were walking as opposed to running. This aided my enjoyment of the gradual increase in pace and tension that is built up as the chase progresses.

For Bouncer, Gabriel Lester installed a sequence of wooden swing doors in the gallery leading the audience through an obstacle course from one side of the gallery to the other. I became very conscious of the person behind me as the noise from the slapping doors fills the gallery.

Naomi Kashiwagi's work Swingtime continues on the interactive theme. She installed a couple of swings in the gallery. The area that the swings inhabit is carpeted with a foamy mat material to cushion any impact of landing on the floor.

As one swings, a swooshing sound accompanies the back and forth movements. I cannot remember the last time I had been on a swing, and participating in this artwork reminded me of the freeing feeling that engaging in such a simple action can bring.

Don Draper on happiness

I am a strong believer that I make my best work when I am happy.

But what is happiness?

According to Don Draper

"Happiness is the smell of a new car. It's freedom from fear. It's a billboard on the side of the road that screams reassurance that whatever you are doing is okay. You are okay." 

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Kamchatka Ice Caves

I am continually discovering new sources of inspiration and love it when people introduce me to unfamiliar artists, concepts, places and 'things' from which I can learn.

A friend recently told me that at the weekend he was looking at some photos of the Kamchatka Ice Caves and they made him think about my work. Quite rightly, he thought I would be interested in the colours, surfaces and forms of these places of beauty.

Kamchatka Ice Cave, by Russian nature photographer Denis Budko

Mutnovsky is a complex volcano located in the southern part of Kamchatka Peninsula, Russia. It is one of the most active volcanoes of southern Kamchatka; the latest eruption was recorded in 2000. At the foot of the Mutnovsky lies a geyser field, popularly known as the Lesser Valley of Geysers.

Kamchatka Ice Cave, by Russian nature photographer Denis Budko

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Shelving as a statement

I have been enjoying watching The Great Interior Design Challenge on BBC 2, and gain inspiration and ideas from the way that the designers use colour in the rooms and how they approach the various types of space that they have to transform.

 I like the way that one of the designers made a feature from a shelf on one of the walls. By painting a stripe from the shelf in the same colour of the shelf, it extenuates the shelf and plays with the notion of 2 dimensions and 3 dimensions.

The shelf reminded me of when I installed the cast block on the wall, and made me think about whether I could work with extending the object by painting the wall as if the paint was coming from the sculpture.

Saturday, 13 December 2014


I've been trying to think of a title (I groan as I find this very difficult!) for a recent piece of work, and was thinking about the associations that people make when they look at my work.

Often people comment on how they want to eat the casts as they look so edible and delicious! The types of food that the sculptures bring to mind are usually sweets and desserts such as sherbet, liquorice all sorts, Yorkshire mixture, pear drops, Edinburgh rock, rosey apples, ice cream and sorbet.

I remember having neapolitan ice cream when I was a child.

"Neapolitan ice cream, sometimes known as harlequin ice cream,[2] is made up of blocks of vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry ice cream side by side in the same container (typically with no packaging in between). Some brands intermix the flavors more, though the separate flavours are still clearly visible."

Neapolitan ice cream is closely related to spumone.

"Spumone (from spuma or "foam"), plural spumoni, is a molded Italian ice cream made with layers of different colors and flavors, usually containing candied fruits and nuts.

Typically it is of three flavors, with a fruit/nut layer between them. The ice cream layers are often mixed with whipped cream. Cherry, pistachio, and either chocolate or vanilla are the typical flavors of the ice cream layers, and the fruit/nut layer often contains cherry bits—causing the traditional red/pink, green, and brown color combination."