The North West Art School Record Machine is an exhibition forming part of the Design Manchester 19 festival. It brings together photographic documentation of architecture and social patrimony of the Schools of Art from across the North West of England. Adding spice to this traditional mix are the cumulative outputs of past designers, artists and performers who emerged from those art schools which have been gathered by Bryan Biggs, Artistic Director of Bluecoat, Liverpool.
Walking into the beautiful exhibition space felt special, there were so many things to provoke the emotional barometer. The proud images of the schools themselves rightly deserve their place and should indeed be celebrated. They are the institutions which often act as catalysts to the initial energy of creative practice. John Beck & Matthew Cornford are correct to try and re-focus our attention to what they inherently represent. The demiurgic pathways these schools fashioned are now being challenged on so many levels. The emphasis being placed by science, technology and engineering combined with reducing budgets, suggests this debate is more important than ever before.
The images of the architectural monuments serve as a record to the last great era in state funding for art and design in the UK. Since the Second World War, art schools have been silently assimilated into polytechnics and universities, nonetheless there is a quiet paradox about this project. The practitioners on display used the music industry and vinyl material as a mainstay for their outputs; a product from a bygone era now replaced by superior digital representation. Yet it is vinyl, akin to a phoenix, which is now enjoying a renewed youthful resurgence. It is impossible to ignore the wonderful arrangement of album covers decorating the back wall. There is something sensual about vinyl and the record covers that house their audible gifts, ritualistic in operation it obviously represents slices of time, refusing to go away. Vinyl is now commercially viable again, with current musicians keen to participate in this trend. Having gazed upon each cover, it is quite remarkable to think that all these segments of individual brilliance were perhaps moulded by events from, or within, our schools of art. Further, the display cabinets in the centre of the room build upon this impression. Each one contains examples from the work of Malcom Garrett and Swifty. Mock-ups, layouts and thoughts adapted into graphic designs for varied client briefs. There is no such thing as an accident, ideas are crafted and these cabinets bring the viewer directly into this stage of the design process.
This is an exhibition which requires your time to search for its secrets, to stop and reflect not only upon what art schools produce but who they moulded. Viewing the whole concept of student, architecture and outcome is a large undertaking. The show introduces and opens the door to many stories. As a collection it is brilliant, however, I believe it could have been elevated further with the use of additional digital tools to record and provide access to the number of live events and talks that have further contextualised the exhibition and its themes.
In 1959, there were 180 dedicated art schools within the UK, now there are only a dozen left. This exhibition provides access into a private world of snapshots, sketches, stencils and collage. It is easy to identify with the audible aspects of punk distortion but seeing them crafted into typographical brandings; that is special. Graphic design is a craft, full of mistakes, yet critical in its detail. A lesson that could be adopted for art schools of the future.
The North West Art School Record Machine is at Bury Art Museum & Sculpture Centre 12 October 2019 – 25 January 2020.
Michael Orr is a freelance media creative and graduate of two North West Art Schools.