In a futile attempt not to miss any of Middlesbrough Art Weekender (MAW) 2021, I scribbled so many routes over my Festival Programme that it fell apart on the last day. Its cover, featuring an image of the sub-region’s iconic Dorman Long tower, symbolically detached itself from the rest of the pages (the tower had been controversially demolished a few nights earlier after losing its Historic England emergency Grade II Listed status)1. My eagerness came partially from art-starvation, but also from how the demolition mirrored this year’s MAW theme, ‘infrastructure’, which questioned how our lives have been tested recently, reimagining ‘Middlesbrough’s industrial past through a town takeover’. An open, interconnected approach by the MAW team involved artists, speakers and workshops dealing with virtual reality, the subterranean, motorcycles, resilience and the post-apocalyptic, as well as screenings, lava pouring and supper clubs, all in contrast to the denial, by certain sectors, of the physical environment’s ability to produce embodied knowledge about identities.
MAW began with an art trail around central Middlesbrough starting from The Auxiliary Project Space, which underlined just how many physical spaces had been animated by the festival. These included established artist-led galleries, bridges, walls, office blocks and commercial venues vacant for some time. An example of the latter was the eponymous group exhibition, Infrastructure, in an empty ground floor office space on Albert Road (which runs between Middlesbrough Railway Station and Teesside University). The tinted glass frontage of the building belied its stripped back interior, which I heard described by visitors at different points as ‘…very London/ Venice/ New York’. The latter city is apposite as it was here that the work of conceptual artist and ‘anarchitect’ Gordon Matta-Clark’s work was exhibited, together with that of contemporary artists responding to the ‘hard, soft, seen, unseen’ infrastructure of life.
As a child in the recession-hit 70s, my knowledge of Matta-Clark came only from photographs of his work with dance and performance artists Trisha Brown and Laurie Anderson. I experienced these collaborations as exclusively body related. Here in Middlesbrough though, his connections to the urban – his sense of place – became clear. On a small screen, ‘Splitting’ (1974), a film of his performative slicing through a house, as if through a membrane, seemed to question hidden reality. What can be known to exist and what cannot? Projected onto a nearby wall, ‘Day’s End’ (1975), Matta-Clark’s act of cutting and removing a central section from a huge shed on the Hudson River, connected with his longstanding interest in gaps and voids which he wrote ‘could be between me and the American Capitalist system’.
During the MAW preview, Middlesbrough’s Bordello Theatre telescoped the past through the present by performing a new work in response to ‘Day’s End’ in consultation with Jessamyn Fiore, co-director of Matta-Clark’s estate. Combining projection, a sound score and long painted poles, the three Bordello performers used what the postmodern dancers of New York’s Judson Dance Theater would have termed ‘pedestrian movement’ to intensely recontextualise and mediate Matta-Clark’s interventions beneath, through and above architecture. Together with fellow ABODE residency collaborators, Katy Cole and Sarah Tulloch, I found it truly inspiring to be exhibiting next to Matta-Clark’s work from the 1970s, and in close proximity to the contemporary work of Stephanie Dinkins’ ‘Bina48: Fragment 11, Fourth Mirror’ (2018) and Anna Ridler’s ‘Mosaic Virus’ (2019) and ‘Myriad’ (2018), which in differing ways used AI and data collection to examine race, gender and obsessive human behaviours3. In this way, in this space, collaging fragments and remnants of recent shared experiences into my own work, ‘Staying in Touch’ (2021), I was aware how own bodies became significant in searching for, and discovering, just how mutable space and time can be.
Elsewhere in the exhibition space, the curation resulted in a series of sweet spots that played with formal and informal connections such as those between Ben Long’s ‘Level Structure (SL279C127)’ (2021), Gordon Dalton’s ‘Monument to an Invented Age’ (2019) and Jo Lathwood’s bitcoin ‘Ladder’ series (nd). Two bench paintings from Narbi Price’s 2020-2021 ‘Lockdown’ series reminded me how his online sharing of the work had provided a rhythm to my own lockdown life. Meanwhile, on either side of Alan Hathaway’s ‘Blue Monday’ (2021), a diagonal space-slicing wall of light, David Shrigley’s ‘Leisure Centre’ (1992) and Braden King’s 2017 ‘National Disintegration’ rendered urban wastelands and extra-legal tax-haven spaces both ridiculous and appalling.
Albert Road was also home to a series of solo and collaborative exhibitions. Describing sculpture as her ‘mother tongue’, Fiona Crisp’s ‘Material Sight (MAW)’ (2021), an installation of large-scale photographs and films of underground science labs, moved people around the ground floor and low-ceilinged basement using sound triggers to produce a whole-body experience of research into ‘things we will never see’. The ‘Underworldings’ talk linked to Crisp’s work was a personal highlight of MAW, as diverse speakers from the fields of art, science and history wove together tales of cosmic rays, phenomenological failure, mythology, alchemy, meditation, surfaces, strata and a lead ‘box of darkness’.
In a space nearby, ‘Concert’ (2021), a collaboration between artist Nick Kennedy and designer and researcher Tom Schofield, choreographed an interactive chorus of small flicking machines that drew in the air and with shadow. Mounted on a window and a wall, they seemed to resemble at different times a dandelion clock, an orchestra and Busby Berkeley dancers, reacting to the movement of visitors (perhaps the tiny ‘batons’ they carried were actually conducting our movements?). On an opposite wall, Kennedy’s typographic glyph work could be read as an unknowable score or text panel for the whole installation.
Across Albert Road, ‘More Gnarley Illusions (When The Boat Comes In)’ (2021), Erin Dickson’s off-site installation from The North East Open Call, unfolded slowly and hilariously. Using dictation software to mistranslate a traditional folksong, Dickson, who is also a glass artist, played with the transparency and opaqueness of language. On each of three screens, a head sang increasingly confusing versions of the song with and across each other, emphasising both the diverse voices that built places like Middlesbrough and the difficulties we experience in understanding what we hear.
The multiple spaces of The Auxiliary itself housed The North East Open Call, a group exhibition of ten artists selected in partnership with Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (MIMA). Textile artist Christine Hesford was a live embodiment of anthropologist Tim Ingold’s research into lines; weaving, knotting and netting fibres and conversations into the space for ‘Denouement’ (2021). Working in the main space, Hesford constructed a web that snared visitors into an examination of their own infrastructures. Across the gallery, Andrew Wilson, who works independently and in collaboration, placed piles of the small publication, This Trust Idea (2020). The publication contains thirteen provocations around how people navigated the pandemic, some reading like comedic clickbait headlines, others like scenes from a life. Intriguingly, they are part of a larger project involving a video and group discussion which was not shown/ available here in Middlesbrough, which asks ‘…is it possible for us to trust each other?… And if it is, how do we do it?’. However, Wilson’s practice was linked to a MAW open floor talk, ‘Are we still talking about resilience?’ which explored the term itself, the distribution of arts funding during the pandemic, and creative strategies for freelancers in sub-regions like Teesside.
At this point my goal to see everything at MAW began to slip away, as the sheer scale of the festival revealed itself. Adam Denton’s film and sound work in the bar, ‘Re:Visitor’ (2020) was fascinating and deserves a full viewing. The film featured a tent-like object which inflated and deflated in a series of urban non-places, and which also stood in front of the screen itself. The work explores ideas of transgressions into public/private space, and how the body (or rather a body-size object) can function to translate what architectural or overarching structures might be shouting or whispering. In a period when mobility has been prescribed like no other in living memory, the increasing and decreasing parameters of the inflatable, and the disjointed field recordings, seemed particularly relevant. In a side gallery, Russ Walker’s long-term project, ‘It’s Not That Either’ (1986-present), an installation of traditional and non-traditional approaches to drawing, made me wish I had more time to engage with the work. Restrictions on audience numbers on preview night meant I missed the performance of his play within the sculpture itself, which I was reliably informed was strong.
Over at Platform A Gallery, Bethany Hunton (recipient of the graduate commission for the nearby Tunnel Gallery, a transition space between two railway platforms), revealed her recent work for the ongoing Celebrating Hidden Middlesbrough programme. Hunton spoke about the importance of the station’s elliptical roof (bombed during WW2) and of her family’s memories of dancing in the roof’s shadows. ‘Penumbra’ (2021), a large-scale vinyl intervention across the Tunnel’s Victorian tiled walls, was triggered by archival images of this absent architecture. In a corner space on Wilson Street, four graduate award winners exemplified the strength of work from BA courses at both Northern School of Art and Teesside University, with MAW providing them with both exhibiting and mentoring opportunities to aid their transition from students to freelance artists and researchers.
At the brand-new artist-led WetDoveTail Project Space in the Hill Street Shopping Centre, it was possible to explore, via QR codes, the many virtual exhibitions that architect-artist Connor Clements has enabled on Teesside recently, both independently and in collaboration with curators and artists. These Virtual Reality (VR) exhibitions have been vital in allowing freelancers and galleries to continue, and indeed expand, their practice and events whilst physical visits to art spaces were not possible. Using a headset, visitors could even visit the Dormon Long tower before its demolition, through a VR experience. The experience was commissioned by The Auxiliary Project Space and designed by Iain Nicholls with assistance from Clements and Ste Bruce. It included paintings by artist and former steel worker David Watson, artist and curator of Pineapple Black, Bobby Benjamin, and sculpture by American artist Birch Cooper (which can only be experienced in VR). More work by female artists felt missing from this work, but the mapped tower itself was perhaps the star of the show, as it appeared to write an alternative autobiography for itself. The experience was uplifting and yet infuriating for locals, as the Dorman Long tower could have followed the example taken by authorities in the Ruhr Valley in merging art and industrial heritage in real life. The work should be made required viewing for anyone applying for gatekeeper roles on Teesside.
MAW 2021 was so exhilarating that I now have a sense of loss that it is over, and not only because I didn’t manage to see Jo Lathwood’s ‘Lava Pour’ event, or any of the children’s workshops. That feeling will pass though, as the Teesside art scene continues to thrive in the face of many obstacles, through the support of its diverse infrastructure, including the brilliant work of directors and curators of MAW, Liam Slevin, Anna Byrne and Kypros Kyprianou. They are improving the legibility of Teesside’s diverse place identity for both internal and external audiences and I’m already looking forward to MAW 2022.
Middlesbrough Art Weekender ran from 30 September – 3 October 2021
Read Middlesbrough Art Weekender: Three Commissions
Annie O’Donnell is an artist based on Teesside.
This review is supported by The Auxiliary.
1 See Kirsty Dawson’s Evening Gazette article regarding one of Nadine Dorries’ first acts as Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport ‘“Teesside’s landscape changed forever”: Reaction from Mayor as Dorman Long tower comes down’. 19.09.21 https://www.gazettelive.co.uk/news/teesside-news/teessides-landscape-changed-forever-reaction-21613387
2 Moure, G. (2006) Gordon Matta-Clark: Works and Collected Writings, Barcelona: Edicones Poligrafa, p. 22
3 During the second UK lock-down earlier in 2021, together with fellow ABODE resident, Alan Hathaway, we had inhabited custom-made pods in The Auxiliary warehouse to experiment for MAW, while maintaining a Covid-safe working environment.