In the middle of our cover shoot with MC Nelson this month, I got a little tingle of recognition that told me we were on the right track. I was stood in the Sefton Park Grotto while photographer Keith was taking photos of Nelson in front of the arched entrance to the Grotto’s caverns, the noises of Africa Oyé cranking into life drifting over the fields to us. It was a sense that various strands of a story had come together and just felt right; that we were even adding something to the fabric of that small corner of the city.
The brook that runs through Sefton Park is part of a system called the River Jordan, a tributary of the Mersey that flows in via an underwater system from an inlet at Otterspool. The Upper Jordan disappears underground just by the Grotto, the Mirror Pond being the last place it’s seen until it resurfaces in Greenbank Park. Its meandering course carries with it a tale of the changing nature of the conurbations around it: from the rock named David’s Throne at its mouth, near the original Jericho Farm; through various damming work to divert it into public parks, eventually forming Sefton Park’s boating lake; and even signs of its original course in the location of pubs named after it (The Willow Bank and The Brookhouse).
The story of this brook has echoes, for me, with Nelson’s own story, not just in his own path as an artist but also in his own views of the Mersey; what it means to him as both home and a place away from home, and all the mental baggage that brings. In his music, he talks of a struggle between pride for the place you call home and knowledge of its knotty, unsavoury past. Nelson is a person who understands that the place around him is built on numerous historical threads that each mingle together to form the vibrant story of how he, and all of us, got here. Good artists have the ability to see this and interpret it for us all to see: they provide us with snapshots of the past viewed from the present, and give us a way of understanding those conflicting emotions we have about our sense of place in the world.
There’s another story that chimes with me in a similar way. I convinced All We Are and another of our intrepid photographers (Robin this time) out on the ferry to get a feel for the bob and weave of the Mersey. It was a chance to take a step back and look back on the city that those three musicians have all come to call home, even though none of them were born or raised here. In doing this, I really got a sense of the idea that the river is an artery that constantly brings life and ideas to the city, a thoroughfare as much as any of the tree-lined boulevards that rake across Liverpool’s outer limits. The river is a life source, and it brings its own dark, uneasy history with it. And it’s through the interpretation of storytellers – musicians, painters, your cab driver and local historian – that these stories can be picked apart and understood.
Over the past four years, I’ve had the pleasure of traversing the city to look for numerous locations like this to use as backdrops for photo shoots with artists, little pockets of resonance that can add to the artists’ own specific narrative. So many locations across the region have become frames or backdrops for photo shoots that I’ve come to view many of them as part of the magazine’s own story. A pub doorway; an arched walkway in the shadows; the grassed square in Chinatown where we asked Farhood to pose in front of the Anglican Cathedral; Bill Ryder-Jones in front of his old primary school; Silent Bill playing in the rubble of an abandoned street art gallery’s building site. Even the light at the bottom of the stairs in The Merchant makes me smile at the memory of Nata’s shoot with Forest Swords, him hunched over my laptop, face lit by the blue glow. I pass these places regularly, and I see them as carrying imprints of the messages we’ve left behind.
Working with some brilliant – and very patient – photographers, we’ve been able to document the city around us in these pink pages as much as the artists, using our home and most potent stimulus as an extra layer to the stories we’re trying to tell. The city is a canvas, the most richly detailed backdrop against which people document their lives in the most vivid ways. Its features, craggy surfaces and buildings are full of so much colour and character. Whether it’s artists coming to the Biennial from across the globe to interpret what they find here, or our own homegrown musicians documenting their relationship with home, the city and its people are an endless source of inspiration.
We’re all constantly adding to the already dense narrative, layering on top of the memories that are already there. Every one of our actions seeps in to our surroundings, becomes folklore, ready for the generations coming after us to discover, learn from, twist and fashion into inspiration for their own new memories. And the cycle never stops, it keeps getting denser – and that’s why it’s important for us to keep adding to the strata of stories in the bedrock, so that the work of today’s artists aren’t forgotten.