‘I was a hare and as a hare I ran’
The words are softly yet authoritatively spoken as a refrain set against a thumping acid house backdrop, played from a vinyl that also talks of historical figures from Pennine Lancashire and their attempts to make new possibilities for themselves. The ritual of sitting down, pulling on headphones, lifting the turntable cover, pressing play, lifting the arm and dropping the stylus until you hear the familiar crackle of sound brings the work to life. As part of Transform and Escape the Dogs by Jamie Holman this link to ritual in ‘White Label Vinyl’ (2019) is one that – to paraphrase Walter Benjamin – links to the magical and religious ritual uses of art, and is mirrored throughout the pieces on display in both form and function.
As artist-in-residence for the first British Textile Biennial, Holman has been researching the histories of working class youth in the region book-ended roughly by the rise of 18th century industrialisation and its decline 200 years later; exploring the opportunities it brought for Lancastrians to re-claim those same spaces and histories that had brought wealth, prosperity, and finally increasing desolation to the region set against the rise of 1980s rave culture. Working collaboratively with a number of other producers, designers, artists and craftspeople the exhibition pulls together narratives of communal gathering and collectivity through forms of creativity to develop news possibilities for being.
The title of the exhibition itself hints at this, referencing the Pendle witches and the practice of physically gathering and transforming into hares to ‘escape the dogs’ of those that sought to hunt them down. Although the supposed Pendle coven were later trialled and hanged, the cautionary tale and transformation into new states frames the exhibition with the importance of collective resistance and transformation. The ritual and magic employed by the witches is transported through time, with each subsequent generation having its own instances of physical and metaphorical transformation. Throughout the exhibition those histories intermingle and blur with no definitive viewpoint from which they are approached, shown as in flux with one another. Each individual piece on display references this collective history and the shared concerns of each time period to create a body of work brimming with collective resistance, counterstrategies and critique.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the series of protest banners created for the exhibition comprised of ‘Live the Dream Banner’ (2018), ‘Devil Dance Banner’ and ‘TRANSFORM AND ESCAPE THE DOGS’ (both 2019). Fabricated alongside Durham Banner Makers, the works adhere to traditional workers’ union processes and incorporate imagery from throughout the periods Holman has researched. Collectively they display an historical defiance through the vehicle of the banner, a visual focal point to rally behind in the face of increasing deprivation.
Being native to this region the narrative of decline in smaller towns and cities is an all too familiar one you come to accept over time. Left to fester with little input or help from central government it has always been the people that spur on change, whether through legal means – in the case of trade unions – or illegal – in the case of early rave culture – that ultimately seeks to foster spirits of community within the disenfranchised, often through creative faculties. It is here that Holman’s work arguably has its greatest strength, bringing a history of culture and subcultures to the fore that otherwise goes overlooked by most. In doing so he creates a space for new gatherings to occur in full view of what has gone before to help encourage new generations to collectively enact their own transformations and not be confined by the social, political and economic conditions of their own time.
There is an overwhelming sense of hopefulness laced throughout the exhibition, that through gathering together more can be achieved and a sense of meaningful existence regained even if only for a short time. It is through those pockets of space in time we re-connect with what has gone before and what will continue in the future. In many ways the legacy of the exhibition will be its most important contribution, acting as a potential kick-start for new escapes, new gatherings and new possibilities.
James Schofield is an artist, curator and current PhD candidate at Liverpool School of Art & Design researching artist-led practice.
Transform and Escape the Dogs, 50 – 54 Church Street, Blackburn.
4 October – 3 November 2019.
More information about the British Textile Biennial can be found here.