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Depression: the art cure?

Paul Brown

Paul Brown is a Queensland-based artist and writer who is currently Visiting Fellow in the School of History of Art, Film and Visual Media at Birkbeck College, University of London. His family left Gateshead a long, long time ago.

Mike Stubbs, City Strapline Industries Mike Stubbs, City Strapline Industries
photo Mark Pinder
Gateshead is just across the River Tyne from Newcastle in England’s north-east, and like many second cities it’s a poor relation. Newcastle has all the accoutrements of a successful financial and social hub. Gateshead is depressed. Its major industries (heavy engineering, mining and shipbuilding) were victims of the rationalisations of the late 20th century and left a legacy of long-term unemployment. Crossing one of the many bridges from Newcastle is always a shock, with the sudden transition to dereliction and poverty as soon as you hit the southern bank of the river.

Gateshead Council has tried to address the problem by building one of Europe’s biggest shopping malls. The MetroCentre combines a fantasy world of Disney-style themed areas—fibreglass olde English village squares inside ugly, windowless concrete hulls—with “the exciting world of retail therapy.”

Then, remarkably, they commissioned what must be one of the world’s largest public sculptures, Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North. Completed in February 1998, it dominates the southern approaches to the city and welcomes visitors who travel by rail, road and even air. Over 33 million people see the Angel every year. The website proudly declares its wingspan (54 metres) is the same as a jumbo jet. And that’s exactly what many of the local residents think it resembles. These are working class families with long term links to the area and its heritage. Many are in their second generation of unemployment. Their nice view of the countryside to the south is now dominated by something they compare to the rusting hulk of a crashed 747.

Their humour wasn’t improved when the council began a major regeneration of the south bank of the Tyne to commemorate the millennium. The Gateshead Millennium Bridge is an exquisite example of articulating engineering design. It leads the wealthy and informed citizens of Newcastle to the courtyard of the old Baltic Flour Mill, now converted into the impressive BALTIC centre for the contemporary arts. Next door is the soon-to-be-completed Sage Gateshead, a curvaceous, glazed performing arts centre fondly referred to by locals as “the slug.” Behind these buildings are fashionable high-rise apartment blocks whose windows look north to Newcastle, where their inhabitants will work and play.

Urban gentrification schemes of this kind are the subject of a major new work by Mike Stubbs called City Strapline Industries (www.strapline.org.uk/). Stubbs has gained an international reputation for his work as an artist and curator, and was recently appointed Curatorial Manager at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) in Melbourne.

Straplines are the hyperbole of the branding agencies. Here Gateshead is not a run-down city in urgent need of repair, but “the UK’s premiere urban opportunity.” Witness BALTIC and the Slug. The decision to premiere City Strapline Industries at BALTIC was inspired, since the arts centre epitomises many of the themes that Stubbs’ work explores.

City Strapline Industries consists of 2 simultaneous video projections on opposing walls of the BALTIC’s performance space. To the left are clips of the official proceedings as The Newcastle Gateshead Initiative prepare their joint bid to be European City of Culture in 2008. Stubbs was artist-in-residence at the agency and casually records their planning, rapture and eventual despair when the official announcement is made that rival city Liverpool has won [Robyn Archer will direct the cultural program. Eds].

On the screen to the right, a hidden camera in some deprived area of the city indifferently records locals watching as a gang of kids destroy a parked car. Eventually the law turns up and the kids and locals melt away as the police lethargically collect the debris. The viewer has to decide whether to focus on the straplines and fantasies of the branding exercise or watch a stark piece of urban realism; the real city behind the bullshit.

Between the 2 screens, gently rotating on a large turntable is a classic work of urban folk art. The late Tex Widderington turned his car into a homage to his beloved Newcastle United football club. Every surface is decorated with club miscellanea: logos, players’ names, supporters’ slogans and so on.

Stubbs’ work explores the space between the spin doctors who believe in gentrification as a means of revitalising neglected urban ghettos and the disenfranchised population who suspect both the motives and ambition behind such projects. In the endless grey space between the 2 is a work of art made by a local as an expression of love for his football team—a work that may well get scrapped because it isn’t ‘real’ art. Real art looks, at least to the locals, like a crashed 747, costs £800,000 and spoils the view.

Putting this large-scale installation in BALTIC prompts an important question. Why did the city burghers of Gateshead choose to build an arts centre that is so emphatically aimed at the elitist European artworld? Comparisons with Ipswich, Brisbane’s poor relation in Queensland’s south-east come to mind. There the city council of an equally impoverished region (which had also lost its industries) created Global Arts Link (GAL), an arts centre specifically oriented towards the local community. Their founding director, Louise Denoon (now at the Museum of Brisbane) curated shows that reflected the local community and gave them a strong sense of ownership.

In Cumbria, just 50 miles west of Newcastle and Gateshead, is Carlise and the Tullie House Gallery. A show was mounted there in October 2003 based on the remains of the Blue Streak rocket-testing grounds built in 1956 at nearby Spadeadam. The show included photographic and video work by John Kippin and Louise K Wilson. It was an overwhelming success. Local residents visited and recounted the way their houses shook when the rockets’ engines were fired, and ex-Spadeadam employees from around the world (including many who had migrated to South Australia to work at Woomera) came to see the show. Like the program at GAL, the show emerged from, and fed back into, the local community.

Large scale electronic artworks that grow out of the community are not unknown at BALTIC. In 2003 they commissioned the remarkable A Free and Anonymous Monument by Jane and Louise Wilson. The commission involved 6 local kids whose participation is documented on their website, “The Way We Live.” It’s a multi-screen video installation which includes huge hanging concrete slabs based on Victor Pasmore’s Apollo Pavilion at Peterlee (recently saved from demolition) and Pasmore and Richard Hamilton’s 1956 show Environmental Painting (Suspended Construction). The shots of kids climbing Pasmore’s graffiti-coated concrete construction are reminiscent of scenes from City Strapline Industries.

So is BALTIC a postmodern zoo where the inhabitants of these deprived areas are put on show for the amusement of the wealthy and educated art cognoscenti? Pippa Coles, curator of Stubbs’ show, defends their position. In 2 years BALTIC has establish a reputation as one of Europe’s leading centres for the contemporary arts. She quotes Tessa Jowell, UK Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, in saying that art does not need to have a social agenda.

Emma Thompson, BALTIC’s Education and Public Program officer provides more statistics. Over 60% of general visitors and over 80% of education visitors come from the local region, though these statistics don’t differentiate between the affluent (Newcastle, Corbridge) and poorer (Gateshead) areas. OfSted, the British government’s education watchdog, has commended BALTIC’s dynamic linking program with Gateshead schools. The centre also has a growing outreach program involving local community and youth centres.

As an artist myself, I like the Angel of the North and admire BALTIC and its outstanding programs. But as someone who has some distant roots (and remaining relatives) in Gateshead, I feel uneasy. With such a large space and a major budget, couldn’t BALTIC be doing just a wee bit more to relate to the local community? As Louise Denoon’s example at GAL in Ipswich demonstrates, it’s possible to achieve this without having to compromise either reputation or integrity.


Mike Stubbs, City Strapline Industries, BALTIC, Gateshead, UK, March 27-April 30

Paul Brown is a Queensland-based artist and writer who is currently Visiting Fellow in the School of History of Art, Film and Visual Media at Birkbeck College, University of London. His family left Gateshead a long, long time ago.

RealTime issue #62 Aug-Sept 2004 pg. 30

© Paul Brown; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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