Continuing our Digging The Archive! series, Bluecoat director Bryan Biggs has selected a range of photographs from their archive, giving us a look at how Seafarers’ relationship to our communities has inspired some great art over the decades and the venue’s integral and problematic relationship to the industry.

International Day of the Seafarer is celebrated annually on 25th June to pay tribute to seafarers by acknowledging their sacrifices and the many issues they face. The 2020 celebration is the 10th anniversary and is particularly pertinent. This year, the campaign will be raising awareness towards the vital and sometimes dangerous work that seafarers partake in and is pushing to get them recognised officially as key workers. According to the International Maritime Organisation, “the crisis has led to difficult working conditions for Seafarers, including uncertainties and difficulties about port access, re-supply, crew changeovers, and repatriation.” During the pandemic, it has been near impossible for some of them to visit their families or return home and the day has been created to recognise their incredible effort and thank them for their ability to deliver vital goods and keep world trade moving during this time.

Bryan Biggs, Artistic Director/Project Director at The Bluecoat: 

“I have chosen the theme of seafaring since Bluecoat started life as a charity school for orphans in 1717, funded by merchants. Many of them made money from the burgeoning port, including profiting from the slave trade and the goods that this trade enabled, such as sugar, cotton and tobacco. Boys from the school were also apprenticed to sea captains and spent a life at sea.”

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Trade Winds by Keith Piper Trophies of Empire exhibition, 1992.

The building’s historic maritime connections run deep. They are also problematic, with profits from transatlantic slavery, as well as goods that this enabled – sugar, cotton, tobacco – donated to the school.  An arts centre for over a century, Bluecoat has for the past 35 years been interrogating the building’s origins through the work of contemporary artists, several of them addressing slavery and its still-unfolding story.

The most significant of these projects was Trophies of Empire, a collaboration between Liverpool, Bristol and Hull, three ports with ingrained colonial and imperial histories. The concept of Trophies came from Keith Piper, an artist at the forefront of the Black British art movement that emerged in the 1980s, since when he has had an ongoing relationship with Bluecoat, as both exhibiting artist and curator.

Against the backdrop of the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ landing in the Americas, the Trophies project invited artists to reveal the legacies of colonisation and exploitation that ensued, as evidenced in the three port cities. In Liverpool, we showed Piper’s video installation at the Maritime Museum, which then included no acknowledgement of slavery in its telling of Liverpool’s seafaring story. The work was shown in a bare brick space that would, some years later, become the International Slavery Museum.

Housed in rough wooden packing crates, the videos showed an endless scroll of stock market data flowing endlessly over submerged images of enslavement, tracing the techno-babble of today’s global capital back to an earlier mercantile process, the transactions of the ‘African Trade’. We used an image from this video for the exhibition poster, seen here.

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LODE by Philip Courtenay & Yellow House, 1992

LODE was an innovative collaboration between Philip Courtenay and local youth arts group Yellow House (then based in Bootle) that interrogated the young people’s place in the world at a time of increasing globalization, when Liverpool seemed cut adrift, the result of departing industries, neoliberal policies and government indifference, and vilified in the national media.

The project started as a Bluecoat live art commission in partnership with Hull Time Based Arts. Selected from an open call inviting artists proposals to create works connecting the two coastal cities on either side of the country, Courtenay’s proposal was unique: he would travel from one port to the other, not however across the trans-Pennine route but circumnavigationally, going the long way around. He traversed the globe, following a ‘lode line’ that passed from Hull through Europe, Central Asia, the Far East, on to Latin America, arriving back in Liverpool.

On the way, he fashioned compasses from cheap materials sourced locally, which he brought back to England, wrapped in local newspapers. The compasses were packed into wooden crates to form the ‘cargo’ for a performance by Yellow House, who ferried them by hand from the Albert Dock quayside to Bluecoat (see image), where they remained as an installation. In many ways it was a ‘relational aesthetics’ artwork before the term existed.

Courtenay and Yellow House continued their collaboration long after the project, which was staged in Liverpool and Hull, had finished. For some of the young people, whose relatives had themselves been seafarers, the world was definitely no longer their oyster in terms of job prospects, especially in an unemployment blackspot like Merseyside.

25 years later, Courtenay revisited the project as Re:LODE. For our gallery exhibition In The Peaceful Dome in 2017, he showed the crates once more, alongside videos from his original journey, juxtaposed with Google maps and current information on geopolitical fault lines along the route. He ran a series of workshops, A Cargo of Questions, that explored themes of national identity and connections between the UK and the rest of the world, particularly Europe, at a time of national uncertainty over Brexit.

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Alali by Sokari Douglas Camp 1988

It was perhaps not surprising that the media largely ignored this exhibition, since it opened the same week as the Tate of the North (which would later become Tate Liverpool), when all eyes were on our new neighbour at the Albert Dock. Sokari Douglas Camp’s solo exhibition at Bluecoat was however a triumph, with its galleries full of animated metal figures and installations that clattered noisily.

Douglas Camp is a London-based artist, and her exuberant sculptures reflect her Nigerian heritage, with references in the Bluecoat show to her dying father’s brass bed, drummers, women in traditional clothing, and – the exhibition’s centrepiece – a large ceremonial boat that occupied the main gallery, just about fitting in diagonally, its oars periodically coming to life, scaring the hell out of visitors.  The exhibition was in contrast to the cool aesthetic of the Tate’s opening exhibitions, which included Starlit Waters, a survey of recent British sculpture’s engagement with modernism.

Bluecoat’s curatorial interests lay elsewhere, in art that reflected and expressed the UK’s changing and increasingly multicultural demographic, made by what would come to be labelled BAME artists. And in the developing ‘new internationalism’ of artists from outside the Western mainstream. The week after Tate and Douglas Camp’s Alali opened, Bluecoat was ‘cleansed’ of its slave history in a daring performance in the front courtyard (and all over the building’s façade) by Liverpool collective Visual Stress, a reminder that many of the buildings across the UK then starting to be repurposed as art museums had colonial histories to be revealed.

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The Paper Boat Exhibition by George Wyllie 1989

George Wyllie understood seafaring and maritime trade, having had a career as a customs officer on the River Clyde, and been a sailor, witnessing first hand the devastation of Hiroshima just after the end of the war. Once retired, he had thrown himself into art, and an encounter with influential German artist Joseph Beuys changed the course of his art practice. Adopting Beuys’ idea of ‘social sculpture’ and art’s capacity to engage with political life, Wyllie embarked on a series of ambitious artworks that would capture the public imagination through their participative nature and resonances with local histories.

A huge steam engine made of straw, suspended on the Finnieston crane was set alight, while another piece The Paper Boat – a children’s paper construction, scaled up to the size of a ship – floated illuminated on the Clyde. Both works were a comment on post-industrial Glasgow, an elegy for lost shipbuilding and manufacturing and the vibrant port, sited poetically at the heart of this lost industry.

The Paper Boat traveled to London, Antwerp and New York and we wanted to bring it to Liverpool, to the Albert Dock but this proved a challenge too far. Instead we staged a gallery exhibition documenting the project, with many of the artist’s delightfully humorous drawings and maquettes. Wyllie, who jokingly labelled himself a ‘scul?tor’, was an integral part of the show, giving talks and singing The Paper Boat Song which was available to purchase on a blue 7” flexidisc.

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Malcolm Lowry blue plaque, New Brighton, 2019

Bluecoat has been celebrating the Wirral-born writer Malcolm Lowry for the past decade, starting with an exhibition we curated to mark his centenary in 2009. He is best known for his 1947 book, Under the Volcano, often cited among the most significant novels of the 20th century. Set in Mexico as the world headed towards war, the book is structured around a single day – the Day of the Dead – in the life of an alcoholic ex-British consul and is a richly layered meditation on the human condition and a portrayal of self-destruction.

Lowry was fascinated by the sea and made his first voyage as a young deckhand, sailing from Birkenhead Dock to the Far East in 1927. Mexico, Canada and other locations feature in his books and, although he considered ‘Liverpool, that terrible city whose main street is the ocean’, Merseyside is vividly recalled in his writing. Each year Bluecoat works with a group of Lowry enthusiasts, the Firminists (named after Under the Volcano’s protagonist) on an annual ‘Lowry Lounge’ event that reconnects him to Merseyside and looks at his continuing influence on artists, writers and musicians.

The approach of the Lounge is psychogeographical, finding Lowry’s footprint in unexpected places as we explore the local terrain through walks, coach tours, film screenings and lectures – and we organised with Liverpool John Moores University a conference involving leading Lowry scholars from around the globe. We also produce publications, commission performances, devise DJ sets, and raise a toast to the writer with a glass of mescal!

After a decade of our advocacy, Wirral Council honoured the writer in 2019 with a blue plaque – described by Lowry fan, the poet Ian McMillan, as ‘a giant piece of punctuation in a landscape that Malcolm Lowry knew so well’ – in his birthplace of New Brighton. Bluecoat chose this quote from Under the Volcano for the plaque: ‘The smoke of freighters outward bound from Liverpool hung low on the horizon’. This was reflected in the location we selected, on the sea wall looking out to the Mersey Estuary, a resonant site for a writer whose voyages took him across the oceans, and one that connects to Bluecoat’s own maritime origins.

For more information, visit thebluecoat.org.uk

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