Pete Clarke
Website Design by Tony Knox 2006 - 2011.
All images copyright of the artist.


Project 7 : Connections: Liverpool and Manchester


Connections and Contradictions (The Burning of the Town Halls), Text by David Campbell 1986

For some, Connections is clear; such an assertive title for a body of work, pregnant with possibilities. It offers itself up as a context from which a yield of forthright, if not definitive statements could be obtained. Not only does it seem to guarantee 'conclusions', but it also assumed a straight- forward process of meaning; one which is diagramatic -even illustrative.

Premised upon the belief that the author of the work will somehow direct a transfer of' information' in the form of' facts' derived from the 'real world' in a form which will best illustrate the privileged vision of the author. All that is required from the viewer is the reception of this 'meaning' communicated to her/him when this is completed we can all bask in the obviousness of the insight, now apparent to all, the conclusions-the connections have been pointed out and we are without darkness!

Within the cluster of terms orbiting 'connections' and its potential meanings, it would seem to me those of fact, truth, evidence, proof and understanding are central to its working. In the caricature form of visionary outlined in the first paragraph, these points of reference are seen as unproblematic; they fall into place in a mechanical procedure which commences with 'facts', discovered by the artist, being communicated through the work, culminating in 'truth' being offered to the viewer to accept. It is simple, clear-cut, mechanical as far as I'm concerned, a complete fantasy.

Municipal Modernism: The Cloth Cap and the Red Glove

Connections and Contradictions (The Burning of the Town Halls)

To begin with it adopts the lumbering hypothesis of the form/content distinction, here in the guise of a 'content' about Manchester and Liverpool in political, economic, social or cultural terms which exists, yet has to be given form to be understood. The 'form' is the 'artistic bit', that which will deliver the 'content'; into which the content will be poured. Form must allow itself to be consumed by content, and yet be as transparent as possible, it must not interfere with the meaning of content. For those who operate by this rationale, and there are many, the normal state of affairs is to describe the 'form' as neutral, allowing the content to be judged in respect to a hierarchy of values set elsewhere. 'Good old form' is just form, untouched by history or ideology; it can be resalvaged and brought back within the citadels of aesthetic purification, after convalescence and cleansing it can be protected from those unsavoury kidnappers who, in their philistine manner, would attempt to despoil form in the service of some 'alien content'. The customs officers of formal integrity mount a constant battle to retain the soiled virtue of form, in fact there are many institutions dedicated to it's preservation!

Content, stripped of its passport to form, is in this scenario understood, through a leap of absurdity, as existing in some form of non state, a void without form.

Extreme as my description may be, in substance I think it captures the debilitating conclusions obtained through the retarded form/content debate and as a counter I would simply like to raise the question: in the very instance of the enunciation of content, is it not given form? Can we even conceive or talk about content, if not through formal languages produced within the confines of historically specific ideological formations? If content has form, then form convention bound and historically produced must be understood as content by virtue of accrued social usage.

With the dislocation of the form/content axis, we are forced into re evaluating the validity of what is usually called 'authorial intent'. For if content is now understood as incorporating formal considerations, which actually determine the meanings constructed for a work through the play of its particular grammer, then we can no longer talk in terms of pre established meanings being communicated by an author in a direct manner to a viewer, rather we have to consider this as a process not of communication but of signification. One open to the notion of negotiability of meanings, an active process of construction, rather than the act of passive consumption.

A signifying practice, through the play of signs with social currency, offers a range of possible meanings produced in the engagement with specific bodies of knowledge possessed by the viewers. It is through this interplay, and the degree to which they appear to function as valid representations, that the very notion of coherence is produced and meaning is fixed. It is a process constantly in flux, gone are the certainties of simply communicating a 'fact' to an audience, meanings have to be constructed and fought for in a dynamic process with no end. Those who seek certainty and reach for the secure, the fixed, and the solid are fossilised in the process; history is full of the accumulated debris of such mute gestures, they make up the landscape on which the battles of today are now being fought.

In this context Connections should be posed in a questioning tone rather than the demand for certainty in unambiguous form. Caution and stealth would be appropriate lines of development, allied to a healthy cynicism about the possibility of any hard and fast results or meanings being secured. In addition, an understanding of what constitutes questions and how they are articulated, in part determines the answers obtained. A significant art practice would need to incorporate these insights within the very operation of its practice, acutely aware of its own construction and the procedures by which it could secure new meanings within the various communities of audience.

This is perhaps more urgent when applied to the undercurrent of this exhibition, suggesting as it does, the possibilities of points of relation between the cities of Liverpool and Manchester. In one sense the project must be seen as a curatorial reflex, animated by a range of concerns, but beyond those, it does assume that there are significant features of compatability or relation between the two cities; but what are they? What is this imagined backdrop of reference, and further, speaking in a fairly utilitarian manner, what would be the function of drawing out these connections in 1986, apart from the mundane aspect of galleries in the two cities having exhibitions to show.

The Red Town halls: Two Nations, Two Cities.
(Oil and mixed media on canvas)

Is it something particular about Liverpool and Manchester, a special relation between the two?
In one sense this could apply, but the 'connection' will be wide in its interpretation, or are Liverpool and Manchester able to function in a much wider scenario, as representative of other cities, situations, processes? Are they able to be offered up as tokens as to what is happening on an extended scale in 'the North' in Britain, Western Europe, in terms of economics, politics and culture in 1986. In otherwords, can Liverpool and Manchester be understood as condensations for a range of complexities which are being restructured at this time. It would seem to me to be the case that the term restructuring can never be too far from our lips today, as it is constantly inserted into a range of situations often as a justification for actions with devastating social results.

In any case when we speak of Liverpool and Manchester, what exactly do we mean?
A geographic location, a political formation, the accrued fabric of history in physical form, of buildings, of monuments, of football teams, of specific cultural forms, of accents, of manufacturing skills, of economic foundations, of history, of futures or their possibilities? What constellation of elements bind to make a Manchester or a Liverpool and are they not in the plural? In what frame of reference are they structured and is it that to which we must turn our attention, of that which we must talk? It seems as if Manchester and Liverpool and their connections are representative of elements in operation within a much larger narrative; a narrative whose process is given form in those complex entities to which we give the names Liverpool and Manchester.

It would be the task of those partaking in this project to sustain analysis of what grouping of processes are at work and the representations they secure in very specific forms. How Manchester and Liverpool are constructed as meanings will help us produce an understanding of the rationale of the system in which they are indexed and by which they are determined. Liverpool and Manchester in 1986 will help us understand the processes in which we are all implicated: the struggle of the economic, political as well as the cultural. What will be at stake will be the very notion of history, its forces and mode of operation.

The Burning of the Town Halls.
(Oil and mixed media on canvas)

By what process will all this be put into action? On entering the exhibition space, what is to be our expectation of the work and could not a sense of the unexpected be a legitimate goal towards which we may work. What we must concede is that we all have expectations about what might form the substance of this exhibition. There are points of condensation to which one would expect investigation to be directed, we have notions of what Liverpool and Manchester and their connections are. As to what these are; how they are produced and reproduced and the degree to which they are seen as 'truthful' to our experience determines in part the kind of meanings we can construct for the futureIt is a future which seems to demand a quite radical break from the past. For as they now operate in the present scheme of understanding, to even talk about these cities as 'future' goes against the current rationale, and to some extent this exhibition would need to address itself to the situation in which Liverpool and Manchester are being talked about as if they were synonymous with history.

Not the living forces of historical processes, but a decaying remnant an historical curiosity which, at worst, has to be allowed or assisted to expire, so that it can be isolated from the rest of the social body for fear of contamination, or, at best, exposed to a form of selective preservation. One in which the fabric of people's social existence becomes a glorified 'theme park', where 'archaic' means of production, stunted in physical form, become open air industrial museums; mumification taking place at ever increasing speeds, history veraciously consumed as just another set of objects to look at on a Sunday afternoon. We are becoming a division of the tourist industry; our environments and history a huge show case; so what does that make us the tourists or the exhibits? .

This is a form of'history' which is unhistorical, for it estranges the 'landscape' of production from the condition which produced it and which in turn it reproduced. It is a history which we are encouraged to consume, but not learn from. We look at the objects of history, but they tell us nothing other than this is history in these objects, today we have different objects so things must have changed! Look, things were bad in the past; crude, noisy, dirty, oppressive, but now that this is no longer the case, we have advanced. History is ordered, it can be checked in catalogues, it is safe and even quaint it certainly cannot harm us.

How then do we insert the 'historical' back into our environment and the way we make sense of it; how can we learn from it, so that we become the subjects of our history? How can we produce an understanding of history not as a group of objects, but as a dynamic process shaping our lives and our futures?  

This is a task that has to be put into operation and it demands a fluidity of approach, one in which the construction of the artwork not only articulates the diversity of signs making up our experience of the world, but also that the manner of their organisation constitutes a historical process, which must be understood.

So what kind of practice will this involve?
One capable of carrying within the mechanics of it's own operation the complexities of meaning. Not only does it have to produce meaning, but it would need to lay bare the process by which it did so, it must attempt to achieve a dialectical unity in which 'meaning is process', a process in which the viewer is actively engaged. This engagement, in an attempt to produce knowledge, may be one fissured with uncertainty, inquiry and even difficulty; but it does not adopt these conditions for their own sake, as a form of elitist foil, rather they are the conditions for moving beyond the role of passive consumer and fulfilling a much more demanding one, that of a participant in the production of knowledge.

Collage, in its much wider definition, would seem to be a process in which this attempt could be best achieved; at least it extends in a diverse manner the opportunities for the mechanics of representation to be exposed. Collage represents a radical break in the techniques of composition developed since the Renaissance, and is distinguished from the tradition of the fixed view point and it's schema of illusionism, by the insertion of fragments of reality into the painting; material left unchanged by the artist. In such a moment there is a destruction of the unity of the painting as a whole, for the system of representation based on the portrayal of reality fashioned by the subjectivity of its creator has been breached.

When a glove or a piece of product packaging are glued on to a canvas, they are no longer merely signs pointing to reality, but they are fragments of reality. They act as blockages to the apparently seemless flow of knowledge produced within those systems of representation, disrupting their naturalness, and in the same instance, in a reflex of self exposure, drawing attention to the fact that it is a system of representation, bound by convention and historically produced.But what of the complexities which produce Manchester and Liverpool? One aspect could be the 'historical' nineteenth century Manchester and Liverpool; the municipal solemnity of it's architecture, the grandiosity of a confident and successful bourgeoisie in the form of public display of power and stability; order posed in architecural as well as social terms.

The remnants of that phase of industrial development still litter the urban environment, now in the form of shadows around which we physically experience the city, but shadows also in the sense that the power which enabled their construction and of which they were proof and celebration, has seemingly moved elsewhere.In the move to display and fix an economic/political power in architectural form, we witness the fossilisation of that form as power; the limits of that power, its identity as a historical 'present' in a process which never lingers which always moves on and has to continually revolutionise itself. Yet how can this be maintained when simultaneous with the demand to revolutionise is the imperative to present itself as order the natural culmination of a process of modernisation. This is the millstone around the bourgeoisie's neck; forced to deny the character of its own identity, it adopts the mantle of disguise; a desperate game of bluff and reassurance ensues. Nonetheless revolutionary the bourgeoisie were; Marx writing the Communist Manifesto in 1848 could write: 'The bourgeoisie, in its reign of barely a hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive power than all previous generations put together.

Subjection of nature's forces to man, machine,' application of chemistry to agriculture and industry, steam navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing whole continents for cultivation, canalisation of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground what earlier century had even an intimation that such productive powers slept in the womb of social labour?" Marx goes on to point out that is not only productive power that sleeps in the womb of social labour, but that the bourgeoisie, through their relations of production, brought about an enormous accumulation of workers, who through their organisation and concerted action achieve massive feats of production. This process also demonstrates the power of organisation and concerted action as a means to other ends; towards goals not directed at simply making a profit, but which embrace the diversity of human potential and need. The bourgeoisie have set in operation a model: that of organisation and united action; they have shown it to work, and this is the danger for in showing it have they not provided the weapons for their own destruction? Could not men and women organise and work together and fight to change the world even further; must we simply accept the structure of our society, the bourgeoisie didn't so why should we?

It is with this realisation that the bourgeoisie attempts to deny its own identity as being a product of a revolutionary process; "if there was a process and it were once revolutionary, then itisno longer, is the reply offered; it has reached its culmination in the existing social order the bourgeoisie are the end stop, or so they would like us to believe. Ushered away is the history of continual overthrow of all previous orders, for if this was not denied, then whatwill prevent the conclusion being drawn that the bourgeoisie will likewise be subjected to the same fate. Overthrown by the class formed within the relations of bourgeois production: the proletariat what exquisite irony!

So we have the paradox of a system, animated by the need for constant revolutionising of the means of production, denying further revolution and attempting to make solid and monumental that denial. In the end, of course, it is the process which the bourgeoisie themselves put in operation which will prevail, it is central to their very definition and infuses their every action.

So as Marshal Berman observes: "everything that bourgeois society builds is built to be torn down.., from the clothes on our backs to the looms and mills that weave them, to the men and women who work the machines, to the houses and neighbourhoods the workers live in, to the firms and corporations that exploit the workers, to the towns and cities and whole regions and even nations that embrace them all¬all these are made to be broken down tomorrow, smashed or shredded or pulverised or dissolved, so that they can be recycled or replaced next week, and the whole process can go on again and again, hopefully forever in ever more profitable forms".2

Can we not also agree with Berman that behind theirfacades and their claim to represent the 'party of order', the bourgeoisie "are the most violently destructive ruling class in history "3 and they still are. Perhaps in Liverpool and Manchester we are witnessing, in a form more brutal and public than normal, the potential for devastation of which this destructive process is capable. Not only destruction of communities in economic terms, but also through political attacks depriving those communities of the right to represent themselves and their needs through local forms of accountability. This leaves diverse and urgent range of issues to be tackled. The work in this exhibition attempts just such an engagement and some of those contradictions and connections form the fabric of concerns in Pete Clarke's work.

1 Karl Marx, Manifesto of the Communist Party Marx/Engels Selected Works, Lawrence and Wishart Ltd. 1980, p40.

2 Marshall Berman, All that is Solid melts into Air, London 1985, p99.

3 'Ibid. p100.