If you trawl through the abundance of press releases, organisational remits and artistic opportunities available online, you will likely notice a recurring word. The core meanings of this simple noun are easily understood and unbounded by any contested interpretations. Yet when employed within an artistic context, the term ‘platform’ encapsulates the hierarchy of cultural production and dissemination. This text will use the term as a departure point to discuss the artwork in Portfolio NW and consider the exhibition’s wider relationship to critical writing.

In essence, a ‘platform’ can be understood as providing visibility: an elevation to public consciousness through a particular channel. It is strongly associated with supporting emerging creative practices. In the visual arts, the mechanisms of this process are both explicit (such as inclusion in public exhibitions) and implicit (financial remuneration for materials/production costs, and curatorial support). When 71% of artists in the UK do not currently receive a fee for exhibiting, this support can make a significant impact to an artist’s development.[1]

As part of the Bluecoat’s artistic programme, Portfolio NW is undoubtedly an institutional output. As writer and critic Pablo Lafuente observes, this is a significant part in the ecology of contemporary arts production and part of ‘a system of education, exhibition, exchange and discourse production shaped by public and private institutions and different interests in specific times and locations.’[2] From artist-led spaces to large institutions, the arts ecology is a multiflorous organism; one that requires nourishment at all levels to be sustainable.

The rationale of Portfolio NW, as a public platform to support new work by creative talent in the region, is in line with the Bluecoat’s long-term institutional remit ‘to nurture both creative individuals and audiences…as a venue for local groups of artists to share their work.’[3] It is the fourth such exhibition since 2008 to solely focus on this objective, following group shows Next Up (2008) and Global Studio (2010), and a solo exhibition with Gina Czarnecki (2011). By acknowledging its own position within the arts ecology, Portfolio NW could be recognised as the endlessly shifting responsibility of the institution to support artists within such a paradigm. The exhibition brings together the disparate works of several artists working across the region: Rebecca Chesney, Tadhg Devlin, Dave Evans, 0point3recurring (David Henckel, Dan Wilkinson & Leon Hardman), Hannah Wooll and Kai-Oi Jay Yung. It is intriguing to note the diversity of mediums in the exhibition. Ranging from photography to performance, this scope could be read as a curatorial statement that reflects – but doesn’t claim to cover – the myriad of artistic practices in the region.

Commissioning and exhibiting new artwork requires the most literal interpretation of a platform: the physical entity of the gallery space. In Gallery One, Rebecca Chesney presents an assortment of material collected on a recent residency to Romania: film footage, photographs and a dead bird. This intimate gallery space possesses strong museological characteristics; it has always flourished in the display and concise study of objects. David Blandy’s installation for the 2008 Liverpool Biennial, The Way of The Lone Pilgrim: The Search for Mingering Mike, displayed ephemera with other artefacts that referenced local history museums.

While in Transylvania, Chesney trekked to an abandoned village where, it is said, birds no longer sing. This pilgrimage to the remnants of these buildings, long since reclaimed by nature, is an act of reconnaissance. Many villages depopulated or abandoned in Romania were directly due to the volatile political landscape over the last century. Following the collapse of the Ceausescu regime in 1989, half a million Transylvanians, with indigenous Saxon heritage and fluent in German, fled to West Germany.

This exodus resulted in abandoned villages and towns which are now still empty or occupied by Gypsies. As generations pass, the exact reasons why these ruins exist begin to fade, superseded by myth and speculation. Facts surrounding its existence become as distorted as the growth of wild flora. As we consider the narrative presented, it slowly becomes clear the focus has shifted from the objects to ourselves: we are left to draw our own conclusions.

Irish-born photographer Tadhg Devlin’s recent work is engaged with immigration in relation to the Liverpool-Irish diaspora. The title, 12 Miles Out, references the location of Devlin’s photographs: 12 nautical miles from the costal baseline of Ireland sailing to Liverpool and vice versa. 12 miles is also the internationally recognised distance of state jurisdiction at sea. Read within this context, each fleeting moment captured in Devlin’s photographs at sea embodies a personal limbo between two lands.

As John Belchem notes in his comprehensive study of the Liverpool-Irish, the vast numbers of Irish who arrived into Liverpool entered ”a diaspora space”, a contact zone between different ethnic groups with differing needs and intentions as transients, sojourners or settlers.’[4] Factors such as religious perspectives and economic cycles could enflame both hostility and immigration levels. Ireland’s current economic instability demonstrates this.

The influx bred incredibly harsh attitudes towards Irish immigrants in Liverpool. However when returning home to Ireland, the Liverpool Irish often found themselves marginalised for leaving. Informed by his own relationship with Ireland since leaving in 1993, those portrayed in Devlin’s images have the potential to trigger countless memories for a particular generation of Liverpool Irish. By using Portfolio NW as an opportunity to initiate an archive of those who emigrated to Liverpool in the 1950s, Devlin’s project can elucidate and possibly reveal untold stories of this time.

To those unwilling to look beyond the surface, Dave Evans’ sculptures may appear to be assembled hastily. Working with accessible materials such as wood, paper and thread, his work radiates a refreshing simplicity that might, at first, be misread. However it is the modularity of these elements that activates his work and encourages a deeper reading.

As a science-fiction aficionado, Evans delights in props produced for 1960s Star Trek TV series, B-movies and low budget films. These simplistic creations are gloriously optimistic. It is worth remembering that back in the 1960s, a desktop computer (even if clearly constructed out of moulded plastic and button lights) was a pretty advanced proposition. The history of sci-fi is full of brazen optimism and speculation surrounding the future; the hand controlled gestural interface computers – as featured in Spielberg’s film Minority Report (2002), based on Phillip K. Dick’s 1956 short story – are already tantalisingly close.

Inevitably, predicting the future is an impossible task. Cautious to avoid the obsessive sci-fi ‘fanboy’ paradigm, Evans distances himself, instead investigating how these objects accentuate perceptions of time through their sculptural language. The paper columns, twisting toward the ceiling, are carefully constructed, each crease a deliberate and crafted decision. Joined together, these forms are in a state of flux; one aptly summarised by the philosopher Husserl’s Bergsonian statement: ‘This continuity forms an inseparable unity, inseparable into extended sections that could exist by themselves, into points of the continuity.’[5] If we look carefully again, are Evans’ sculptures greater than the sum of their parts?

The female figures depicted in Hannah Wooll’s drawings and paintings are, at first glance, familiar. On closer inspection their features are drawn out and often exaggerated or underdeveloped. Noses are jagged. Eyes mismatched in size. There is a naive and natural beauty inherent in these portraits. Often located in forests or imagined landscapes, and sometimes accompanied by tiny creatures, the figures appear vulnerable. There is a sense of contradiction as we meet their piercing gaze.

The manipulated iconography employed by Wooll defies our, perhaps unconscious, desire to witness unblemished flesh; a yearning forged out of overexposure to tabloid culture. Wooll’s works clearly, and playfully, interrogate the representation of the female form in historical painting. In the male dominated practice of painting starting with the Renaissance, women were often perceived as objects in high society portraiture or cast as Biblical figures – in stark opposition to their domesticated status. Wooll subverts traditional iconography, and injects a delicate measurement of kitsch to create mesmerising works that potentially summon a range of often contrasting emotions.

Facing out to College Lane, the windows of Gallery Three provide a looking glass to and from the shopping district of Liverpool One. This dialectal relationship between cultural and consumerist praxis is one of the most spatially intriguing features of the galleries at the Bluecoat. It is here that Kai-Oi Jay Yung transforms the static gallery environment into an experimental space for movement and dance. Over the duration of Portfolio NW, Yung will hold dance laboratories in the gallery with dancers and public participants.

These activities do not discriminate against any genre of dance or skill level: participation, and a connection to our inner self, is actively sought. Weaving numerous disciplines, Yung’s practice is fuelled by her desire to unravel complex cultural forms, challenging and engaging the viewer through physical and participatory works. Approaching Shadow Dance without any formal training in dance or movement, Yung will advance her engagement with psychological and physical blockages, exploring the junctures between psychology, movement and the body. As with her recent work, she will use her own body and mind as vehicles to absorb and propagate new interpretations of movement. Gestural movement is perhaps the most visceral and emotional bodily release, one that has a deep, primal connection with the inner self. It can be seen as a liberating experience, one that has the potential to lead to spontaneity and improvisation.

Drawing on both choreographed and improvised gestural movement,Shadow Dance is influenced by participation by numerous actors: the Bluecoat as an institution, the professional dancers and the audience. Yet through participation and representation, these actors operate within Yung’s wider interrogation of the structures of reality, becoming implicit in the rendering of new possibilities. Numerous visits will be required to see Shadow Dance develop.

0point3recurring, the triumvirate of artists David Henckel, Dan Wilkinson & Leon Hardman, is an artistic collective whose practice also straddles numerous disciplines. Their interactive installation MODZ in Gallery Four depicts the collective’s recent performance in Preston city centre. Undertaken by the artists driving three cars modified for high-end audio and extreme bass use, the installation brings together the different elements of the work in an immersive installation in which the viewer is (literally) in the driving seat. The three screens in the gallery are synced to represent one-hour in the life of Preston bus station and also the view from the car during the performance.

A highly regarded work of Brutalist architecture, the bus station and car park is the subject of contentious debate. Ordered for demolition by Preston City Council, which considers the building inadequate in plans for a revitalised transport network, its future is still uncertain. Reverberating around Preston, the analogue synthesizers each car plays create sound sculptures that directly respond to the city through their journey. Finally assembling on top of the car park, the cars orchestrate an impromptu audio performance. This vociferous act galvanises the space, and in doing so, highlights the potential of the building and its own position within the city.

To support economic growth, Preston City Council believes in capitalising on its geographical position as a gateway and transport interchange of above sub-regional significance[6]. As the role of town centres is shaped by the impact of online shopping, urban planning policy is shifting towards pedestrianised city centres. This gradual change is underpinned by an interconnected transport system with cars being slowly phased out of these congested centres. This irony is not lost on 0point3recurring.

Through their performance, they argue that a new homogenised transit station, as opposed to committing to refurbishing the current bus station, will further erode Preston’s cultural identity and lead to another example of ‘Clone Town’ Britain. Underneath the bonnet of this intriguing work lie potent questions surrounding urban development, political motivations and class.

As an institutional platform, Portfolio NW has sought to transcend its own position and consider the wider implications of such an endeavour. By supporting the work of creatives in the region, including writers, it adopts the rightful stance that critical writing is a creative endeavour in itself. This admission recognises that criticism is analogous with the positions occupied by the artist, the institution or the audience within the cultural ecology. Interestingly the Bluecoat’s support of the relationship between art and writing has been explored through an official writer in residence.[7]

Art and criticism operate in a symbiotic relationship. To support a thriving cultural ecology, it is vital that criticism engages with the process of production and dissemination of artwork. The ease of disseminating or accessing content online has gradually led to a democratic shift in how critical writing is consumed. It is a feasible argument that blogging websites, comment boards and social media constitute critical platforms. When choosing the tools in which to conduct criticism, the critic, regardless of their level of experience and on which platform the text will be disseminated, needs to draw on make informed aesthetic judgements that elucidate, interpret, analyse and/or evaluate creative works.[8]

Critic JJ Charlesworth considers the theoretical problem of undertaking criticism as ‘how to mediate between concrete and individual experience and the wider discursive and institutional cultures that produce the intersubjective constituencies of art.’ [9] Critics are, usually, not trained as critics; yet this is not a caveat. The knowledge and skills these writers possess have been honed through their own education and creative endeavours. They are already engaged through curating, academia, managing organisations/artist led spaces, working within an institution or making art themselves.

Yet there is universal acknowledgment that critical writing in the region is not yet fully integrated into this process. Critical writing platforms striving to address this, such as The Double Negative and Corridor8 amongst others, are vital in the development of criticism in the region and beyond. In the same manner that institutions such as the Bluecoat support artists, these platforms can offer editorial support, improve writing standards and, crucially, help pollinate the critical conversation in the region.

To inform and expand on this text, a selection of writers, artists and curators practicing in the North West have been invited to contribute to the Bluecoat’s a-n Artists’ Talking blog – a prominent online platform dedicated to supporting arts criticism. Each week throughout the exhibition, a new text will be uploaded to the blog. It is hoped that by inviting different contributors, a wider conversation about art criticism will develop, with the potential to cover themes and topics beyond the scope of this text.

Jack Welsh – July 2013.

This text was commissioned for the exhibition Portfolio NW at the Bluecoat, Liverpool, Friday 26 July – Sunday 15 Sept 2013.

Portfolio NW Artists’ Talking Blog: http://www.a-n.co.uk/artists_talking/projects/single/3578832

[1] Jack Hutchinson, a-n News: Paying Artists Survey: 71% receive no fee for exhibiting (2013) http://bit.ly/15GlYtk
[2] Pablo Lafuente, Notes on Art Criticism as a Practice (2012) http://bit.ly/15qmCei
[3] Lewis Biggs, ‘Individuals and Institutions in Dialogue’ in Bryan Biggs and Julie Sheddon (eds). Art in the City Revisited (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2009), p.42.
[4] John Belchem, Irish, Catholic and Scouse: The History of the Liverpool Irish, 1800-1939. (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2007), p.2.
[5] Edmund G. Husserl, On the Phenomenology of the Consciousness of Internal Time 1893-1917, Trans by John Barnett Brough. (London: Springer, 1991) p.29.
[6] Preston City Centre Plan: An Area Action Plan to 2026 (2012)
[7] Poet and performer Nathan Jones held the yearlong post in 2009-2010 producing new written work, instigating collaborations and curating an exhibition and event. It is interesting to note that the Bluecoat plan to engage with critical writing through a similar position in the near future.
[8] Yet it should be noted that there is no definitive methodology for undertaking art criticism. Interpretations of criticism are plentiful. Theories posited include a return to evaluation based criticism (Elkins, 2003; Carroll, 2009).
[9] JJ Charlesworth, Critique vs Criticism (2011), http://bit.ly/nh5jQw