Like many towns in the North of England, Blackburn has a rich history of manufacturing and trade; rising to prominence in the industrial revolution as one of the first industrialised towns in the world. The Spinning Jenny – the technological innovation that kick started the industrial revolution – was created nearby in the town of Oswaldtwistle and helped attract workers and high volumes of trade.
This boom of industrialisation allowed the town to develop and expand up until the inevitable bust following the collapse of the textile industry in the mid-20th century. In the postindustrial economy that followed, Blackburn, like many former mill towns, had seemingly been staring into a chasm of rack and ruin. However, following sustained investment from the local council, in recent years its public spaces have seen a phase of regeneration that has begun to slowly draw locals and visitors back to the town.
Set against this backdrop of methodical reinvigoration, The National Festival of Making first launched in 2017 with the aim of showcasing the contemporary manufacturing skills fostered in Lancashire, whilst engaging with the area’s rich history of craftsmanship and collaboration. Now in its second year, the two-day, town-wide event returned this May with another ambitious programme that once again featured an ‘Art in Manufacturing’ strand: ‘Art in Manufacturing Season 2’.
Co-organised by the arts commissioning programme, Super Slow Way, ‘Art in Manufacturing’ serves as a critically-engaged counterpoint to much of the festival’s largely practical (‘making’) focus; pairing a selection of UK artists with regional manufacturers, providing them with access to specialist machinery and a wealth of artisanal skills, experience and heritage craft techniques to create a new artwork for the festival.
Among the seven artists that were selected this year, Manchester-based Liz West worked with the Blackburn-founded wallpaper manufacturers to develop a deceptively disorientating wallpaper pattern, ‘A Subjective Mix’ (2018), which was presented in The Exchange (formerly the site of Blackburn’s historic Cotton Exchange). Housed within the crumbling grandeur of the space, a giant, seemingly grey octagon was almost overshadowed by the surrounding architecture. Once approached however, the wallpaper covering the octagon suddenly revealed itself as scores of repeated coloured dots. Based on colours from the venue’s original windows and rooted (like much of the artist’s work) in the colour theory of Josef Albers, the pattern tricks the brain leaving it unable to process its sensory complexity from a distance; transmuting it to a ‘true’ grey tone.
Understated compared to the immediate vibrancy of much of West’s practice, the work directly drew on the history of The Exchange building and its octagonal architectural structures to realise an installation that prompted viewers to question their understanding of the interaction of colour and how it impacts their perception of the environment they are in.
In contrast to West’s subtle contribution was the overt physicality of ‘In Practice’ (2018) by David Murphy. Murphy worked alongside welding apprentices from Lancashire-based steel manufacturers, the WEC Group, to create seven ‘saplings’ of cut, folded and welded shapes resembling human-sized botanical forms, displayed at PRISM Contemporary. Directly utilising the repetition-based technique apprentice welders’ practice in their search for perfection through craft, the cut shapes are uniquely configured into their surprisingly delicate forms that belie their material components and gently sway when visitors pass by. Although literally and somewhat obviously emphasising the potential of the apprentice welders in the potential for growth within a sapling, Murphy articulates their pursuit of perfection in a visually engaging manner that displays the nuance involved in metalwork that generally goes unacknowledged.
This nuance of skilled process was also exemplified in Nicola Ellis’ installation at The Gatehouse, ‘Chemistry and Magic Straight Down the Line’ (2018). Paired with Darwen-based metalwork firm, Ritherdon, Ellis undertook an extended residency with the organisation, experimenting with the variety of processes they operate and exploring their vast historical archive. In doing so she discovered the story of Ritherdon’s relationship with the American illusionist Chung Ling Soo in the early 20th century and their subsequent fiercely guarded production of magic tricks.
Referencing theatricality and illusions throughout, the bespoke pieces Ellis produced included sheet metal boxes reconstituted from the offcuts of customer orders to create negative spaces with a direct nod to illusionists’ boxes used throughout history, and a curtain made from the metal hooks used to hang items for powder coating that partially obscured the exhibition . If these pieces laid bare the spaces often unseen by spectators of showmanship, the artist’s powder coated paintings completed the circle of illusionistic indeterminacy. With Ellis and the Ritherdon technicians inadvertently creating a new method of powder coating in their manufacture through applying mixed coloured pigments by hand, the resultant paintings exist as an alchemical illusion that sumptuously deceives the method of their production.
With the second year of the festival drawing to a close and given the increased strength of the commissions in Art in Manufacturing Season 2, questions will undoubtedly be raised in regard to how a prospective ‘Season 3’ could be integrated into the wider festival programme. In staging the festival over a single weekend, organisers run the risk of alienating meaningful engagement with commissioned projects as visitors rush to take part in activities such as making sessions that are further temporally limited.
Unlike larger-scale festivals and biennials that are often able to stage projects in spaces that are usually inaccessible or ‘off-limits’ to the general public – and augment these commissions with engagement programmes – The National Festival of Making has an inversion of this predicament. In staging such a concentrated programme of practical opportunities, how can visitors find time to experience and reflect upon aspects such as visual arts commissions and historic spaces without losing out on the experiential buzz of practical components that undoubtedly draw the largest visitor numbers to the town for the weekend itself? Given the success of the 2018 iteration of the festival, however, it seems a prescient organisational concern to deal with moving forward.
The National Festival of Making, various venues, Blackburn. 12 – 13 May 2018. In case you missed the festival, head to Blackburn Museum & Art Gallery where the Art in Manufacturing Legacy Exhibition runs until 4 August 2018.
James Schofield is an artist, curator and current PhD candidate at Liverpool School of Art & Design researching artist-led practice.