We and Onion Widow at Fred’s Ale House

Sitting in a café in Manchester city centre, Lauren Velvick is telling me a strange story. As co-founder of the “interdisciplinary curatorial unit”, The Exhibition Centre for the Life and Use of Books, Lauren is explaining the background to an exhibition which will form part of the unit’s next event, taking place on Saturday October 3rd at Fred’s Ale House, Levenshulme.

The unit specialises in unearthing forgotten and esoteric cultural histories, such as that surrounding Savoy Books, the Manchester-based publishers of Lord Horror, the last novel to be banned in Britain, commemorated earlier this year in the exhibition Modern History Part One, at Blackpool’s Grundy Art Gallery. It was through conversations with the writer Michael Butterworth of Savoy that Lauren discovered the work of experimental psychologist and artist, Dr John H. Clark, who worked at Manchester University until his early death, aged 62, in 1992. Clark’s unusual approach to psychology was summed up in a book called A Map of Mental States, which literally did what was suggested in the title, offering plentiful illustrated examples of different mind-sets and conditions in the form of maps which were intended to help the reader in a course of self-diagnosis. But his research also looked at the possibility the human mind could soar from its ordinary “average” state to “peak experience” and even further, to “mystical experience”. This journey was referred to by Clark as experiencing “the void”. Clark, who also wrote and published poetry, even invented a kind of DIY sculptural guide to the mind, in the form of a template for an illustrated cone you can copy, cut out and glue together.

According to Lauren “He had a lot of things he was going to publish but he died before that could happen.” Clark’s early death, of a brain tumour, was probably caused by radioactive poisoning, the result of working in an office below the former laboratory of Ernest Rutherford, revealed as contaminated with nuclear materials and mercury in 2001. Several other psychology professors working in adjacent offices at the University also contracted cancers and died.

Research into Clark’s life and work is in its early stages but the Exhibition Centre for the Life and Use of Books is receiving valuable assistance from Clark’s widow, Christine, now in her mid-80s. During the summer, the unit also attended a masterclass run by artists Pil & Galia Kollectiv, featuring a lecture by mathematician and philosopher, Tzu Chien Tho, and, like Clark, he also touched on the idea of “the void”.

Interestingly the show on Saturday October 3rd also features Pil & Galia Kollectiv, providing one of two musical performances, both experimenting with the idea of the cover version. Pil and Galia Kollectiv’s band, We, borrows strategies “from the likes of the Residents, Devo and Laibach” to play a series of well- known pop hits in which the word “I” has been substituted by “We”. Examples abound, such as “We Want to Hold Your Hand”, “We Will Always Love You,” and “We Want to be Your Father Figure”, transformed from “tender love songs into threatening revenge messages and military march tunes”.

In addition, Manchester artist David Jones presents the second only appearance of Onion Widow, which he describes as “a project that’s trying to make music about the problems I have making music.” Using cheap equipment including synth, reel-to-reel tape deck, drum machine and added vocals, Onion Widow will re-version Lime’s 1984 disco track Angel Eyes. Dave uses technology in a “scissors and glue way” and besides designing the poster for the show, is also presenting a special edition of free beermats displaying the song’s lyrics including a visual gag spelling out the word “Baby” that I won’t spoil by explaining. The show looks like it’ll be thought-provoking as well as not your normal night out in Levenshulme, about which Lauren says, “Having it there, it’ll be mysterious”.

Bob Dickinson is a writer and broadcaster based in Manchester.

Image courtesy The Exhibition Centre for the Life and Use of Books.

We and Onion Widow at Fred’s Ale House, Levenshulme, Saturday October 3rd, 7.30pm, £5/£3 unwaged.