Walking west through Salford from Victoria Station, you can’t help notice the cranes. As soon as you cross the Irwell it’s more or less one continuous building site, with pedestrians funnelled here and there between hoardings, ‘Temporary Footpath’ signs and promises of a bright, young-professional-heavy future incoming.
This is the way to Paradise Works, Salford’s newly opened artist-led organisation, housing studios for 28 practitioners and a new gallery space. It’s in a converted red-brick warehouse by the river, with plenty of breathing room between the studios to allow for project spaces. Coinciding with The Manchester Contemporary 2017 the organisation launched its inaugural group exhibition, Politics of Paradise. With all the construction and placemaking happening in the area, it’s fitting that the opening exhibition of Paradise Works was very much about location and our shifting relationship with the belief in a better place, always on the way.
The strongest pieces in the show were those with location at their heart, or a heavy emphasis on place and local engagement. The largest piece (with the highest production value, thanks to support from Quays Culture and University of Salford Art Collection) was ‘One Square Mile’ (2016) by Chris Paul Daniels and Sam Meech, a video based around developing an understanding of the area around Salford’s Media City through alternative methods of surveyance. It presented a series of absurdist approaches to chronicling what constitutes an arbitrarily defined area (like a square mile), such as randomly tossing a square frame on the ground and describing what it enclosed and the use of what3words’ word-based location gridding system, presented as surprisingly delicate fragments of found poetry with accompanying location shots.
The entire process was presented in the same slick, voice-overed, prospectussing style of developers and town planners worldwide, bringing new attention to the innate bias and narrative-bending methods at the heart of so much pre-development research. The fact that this particular piece ‘surveyed’ one of the national centres of narrative formulation, Media City, gave it a resonance beyond the standard ‘local understanding’ vs. ‘corporate understanding’ tension.
Another highlight was Andrew James Brooks’ ‘Routes’ (2017), a sound-based piece broadcast from a set of birdhouses in the stairwell using warped recordings of the calls of birds of paradise, interspersed with samples of religious violence and manipulated recordings of local construction (including the sounds of Paradise Works itself being renovated).
A work-in-progress project in his studio acted as an interesting expansion of this, featuring a 2-second loop of a local construction noise hypnotically looped over and over on a digital turntable with a ping pong ball looping metronomically around on top. The audio was augmented through an effects unit that anyone was free to experiment on, and behind the turntable were many more identical ping pong balls boxed up in acoustic foam like eggs, acting as a curious reflection on time, sound and stillness.
One of artists that led in putting people and places at the heart of things was Elizabeth Wewiora, a socially engaged practitioner primarily working in photography. ‘Rotten Apple’ (2017) presented two C-type prints made by taking slices of apple from a local tree, leaving them to rot, and then putting them through a darkroom enlarger in place of photographic film. The two resulting prints are staggeringly rich and detailed close-ups of things turning sour, full of feathery texture and seductive mystery.
Her studio contained the pilot of a new socially engaged project in which she works with people to document lost or fading spaces and produce a lasting household object out of that process. She plans on repeating the process until she has ‘a full living room’. The first application of this process involves working with a bookbinder’s daughter to chart her father’s for-sale house. Her photographs of the space stand in stark contrast to the overlit, sterile images favoured by developers: clutter is celebrated as a demonstration of human presence, and the shots capture the silent, lonely familiarity of a well-worn room, dust moving slowly in the low sunbeams. One touching shot features the bookbinder’s chair, a chair that Elizabeth has recreated in her studio and upholstered using fabric printed with a shot of the river the house backs onto. It’s the very same river that flows past the window of her studio, only 30 miles downstream.
Paradise Works looks set to avoid some of the common pitfalls of artist-led spaces: insularity, incongruous exhibition design and a counterproductive sense of exclusivity. It was refreshingly welcoming and a joy to move around in. Whilst it no doubt has a lot to do to maintain this, for the time being, it works.
Politics of Paradise, Paradise Works, Salford.
28 October – 26 November 2017.
Jacob Bolton is a writer and music producer based in Liverpool.