‘Loiter’ is a word with multiple connotations, which change depending on a person’s economic and social status, age and position in the world. While to some, the act of loitering can indicate an absence of direction or a lack of meaningful uses for one’s time, to others it represents an abundance of possibilities – the freedom to take one’s time and to decide what to do with it, an absence of urgency or responsibilities, and an openness to diversions or changes of direction.
LOITER, a one-day event showcasing new commissions for public spaces in Manchester and Salford, took the concept of loitering as a starting point for a slow, deep engagement with works of art encountered in ordinary, everyday places. Devised by PROFORMA (a curatorial platform specialising in programming art outside of conventional gallery settings), the event was initially planned to take place simultaneously online and as a socially distanced in-person event, focusing on Chapel Street, an historic trade route which connects the neighbouring cities of Manchester and Salford. Beginning near the border with Manchester city centre, Chapel Street meets the University of Salford and Salford Museum and Art Gallery at the Crescent, a row of Georgian terraces a mile and a half up the road, before continuing westwards out of the city. Historically characterised by industrial production and working-class housing, the Chapel Street area is currently undergoing extensive changes and redevelopment as part of a building boom in the areas immediately surrounding Manchester city centre.
While strict lockdown restrictions imposed by the government at the end of December meant the event could not go ahead in person, viewers were able to engage with the commissions via a livestreamed film documenting a two-hour walk between the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art (CFCCA), based in a former market building in Manchester’s Northern Quarter, and the Working Class Movement Library, a radical history archive on the Crescent in Salford. Slowed down to a contemplative pace, artworks were presented at various sites en route as part of the walk through Manchester city centre and across the historic boundary of the River Irwell into Salford.
LOITER started on the pavement outside the CFCCA with a performance by the Iranian-born, Manchester-based artist Omid Asadi. An installation by Asadi, ‘Autopsy of a Home’ (2020), co-commissioned by PROFORMA, was on display inside the gallery before lockdown restrictions forced the closure of all non-essential retail and leisure facilities in November. Taking place in front of the now-shuttered gallery, Asadi’s performance ‘Hansel and Gretel’ (2021) substituted strangers’ discarded chewing gum for the trail of breadcrumbs which is usually associated with the titular fairy tale. Diligently painting each piece of gum encountered beneath his feet – in a performance that was ignored by all except an occasional curious passer-by – Asadi’s endeavour appeared futile and pointless. Like the act of chewing gum, which helps to pass the time, his task recalled the types of repetitive actions with which we might absentmindedly distract ourselves while waiting for a place to open – or, in the context of the pandemic, to reopen, as we wait for something resembling normal life to resume.
Asadi’s performance also brought to mind questions about whose presence is welcomed in the street, which activities are deemed socially acceptable, and who decides and polices this. Loitering (particularly when carried out by those belonging to marginalised groups, or otherwise existing outside of accepted norms), is often seen by the authorities as a threat to the status quo, and linked with antisocial or criminal behaviour, from street-drinking to graffiti.
In normal times, hanging about with no sense of purpose generally attracts suspicion. In the context of the Covid-19 public health crisis, it’s expressly forbidden, falling outside of the strict set of reasons for which we are allowed to leave home: to shop for essentials, to travel to work, or to exercise. With this, we lose important opportunities for chance encounters and interactions with acquaintances and strangers. The previously innocuous activity of stopping and chatting in the street now feels fraught with danger, potentially putting not only ourselves but others at risk.
Chapel Street native Tink Flaherty’s ‘Mancunian Whispers’ (2021) was, therefore, a welcome opportunity to hear the voices of those whose stories we might miss on our usual routes through the city, or which are forgotten when an area’s demographics and uses change. Flaherty initially intended to facilitate discussions with members of the public, through conversations on a bench in Greengate Square, a public space on the border of Manchester and Salford. Due to lockdown restrictions, ‘Mancunian Whispers’ was presented instead as a video work, featuring two interviewees who shared personal and family experiences of living and working on Chapel Street in decades past, portraying the area as a place for living, working and socialising that contains a multiplicity of communal, social and individual histories.
French-born, Manchester-based artist Juliet Davis-Dufayard also offered us the opportunity to pause and listen, taking us away from the busy arterial road to rest momentarily in a quiet spot in Islington Park. Her series of sound and video works ‘watching the moon and jets crossing and recrossing the clouds’ (2021) began with spoken instructions reminiscent of a meditation technique called ‘present moment awareness’, asking viewers to “feel the ground beneath your feet” and “take a deep breath and notice how you feel in your body and how the world around you feels.” Then proceeding on a meandering route through the backstreets and riverbanks of Salford, Davis-Dufayard collaged together extracts from pre-existing texts, including Derek Jarman’s diary writing on the personal impacts of the HIV/AIDs epidemic. She also drew our attention to plants encountered en route, including the humble buddleia, a ubiquitous settler in the waste grounds of British cities, mapping out the complex origins and journeys of particular flora and fauna. Tracing the migration of plant and animal life across continents and cities over time, she brought into question the notion of native and alien species. This assemblage of ideas prompted my mind to wander and make connections between seemingly disconnected people, contexts and places, separated by time and distance. Davis-Dufayard suggested that forgoing pre-determined routes and destinations can open our minds and help us abandon our preconceptions of the world and the places we find. Here, the goal of walking was not to reach a destination in the shortest time possible. Loitering provided space to ruminate and think through the jumble of stories, memories, images, texts and other stimuli we encounter on a daily basis, and which we carry around with us from our pasts.
Looking back in history to Salford’s industrial past, a trio of animations by the painter Parham Ghalamdar, ‘Glitching Yard 2020’ and ‘Mechanical Sisyphus Nos. 1 and 2’ (all 2021), consisted of looped drawings depicting workers and machinery engaged in repetitive movements. The reference to the unfortunate Greek mythological figure of Sisyphus, who was condemned to push a boulder up a hill in perpetuity, suggests that manual work is a never-ending, thankless and ultimately meaningless task, and a routine from which it is difficult to break free. Capitalist value systems require citizens to participate actively and productively, as workers and consumers. Loitering subverts these prescribed modes of being: in a fast-moving, output-driven world, to meander and take time out to explore is an act of rebellion that opposes the dominant pace of life and work.
The German artist Christian Selent made the political dimensions of loitering, and its connections with work and leisure, explicit in his film ‘Idle Thoughts’ (2021). The film was developed during a remote residency at the Working Class Movement Library, which holds materials relating to working-class culture, politics and activism. Selent drew links between loitering and laziness – the right to do nothing – as explored in the French writer Paul Lafargue’s 1883 text The Right to be Lazy. Reacting against earlier radicals’ demands for the right to work, Lafargue called for a rethinking of priorities and a move away from a world where people’s worth was measured in relation to work. Selent’s film, which flicked through a slideshow of short quotes and observations about work and leisure, had the urgent tempo of a ticking clock, suggesting that new attitudes to working and living, and alternative modes of social organisation, should be a priority in the post-pandemic world.
As well as upending our social lives and working patterns, the pandemic has changed our perceptions of time. Like many, I have found my attention span greatly diminished and my ability to concentrate sadly lacking in recent months. Yet despite its two-hour duration, LOITER didn’t feel overlong; by adopting the rhythm of a walk, it maintained a watchable pace and variety. In a gallery, I might spend mere moments with a video or sound work before moving on if it doesn’t immediately engage me. LOITER commanded my attention, presenting not just discrete works of art but situating them in an expanded journey through space and ideas. It demonstrated the creative potential of taking one’s time.
LOITER took place online on 30 January 2021 and was curated by Chris Bailkoski for PROFORMA.
Natalie Bradbury is a writer and researcher based in Greater Manchester.
This review is supported by PROFORMA.