Baltic Triangle creative hub Constellations plays host to a timely exhibition this month in Liverpool: A City Of Protest. Featuring art and messages from a wide range of campaigns and demonstrations, the show displays Liverpool’s proud protest heritage and promotes the requirement to stand up for a fairer, progressive society. Ahead of the launch event on 20th July, curator Amanda Marie Atkinson tells us a little more about the exhibition and story behind it.
What is the exhibition Liverpool: A City Of Protest about?
Liverpool as a city is often associated with defiance and non-conformity and spoken about in a way that sets it apart from the usual narrative of modern British political history. The exhibition aims to document and celebrate Liverpool’s history in standing up for social justice and equality and how this continues today, with various campaign groups existing in the city.
Over the past year there have been some huge political shifts, such as Brexit and the election of President Trump, and with that an increased awareness of the threat of the rollback of, for example, women’s rights, and human rights and social justice and equality more generally. It’s important to recognise the significance of collective people power and action from the bottom up in the face of adversity, and it’s fair to say that Liverpool has experienced its fair share of negative treatment, labelling and injustices over the years.
The exhibition will touch on the city’s history of protest, documenting local demonstrations and marches through photographs submitted by local people, photographers and documents provided by the Archivist Team at Liverpool Central Library, whilst also acknowledging more contemporary examples of protest. It will display placards used at a range of recent demonstrations, many of which highlight the Scouse wit and humour the city is well known for.
Can you talk to us about the organisations associated with the exhibition?
There’s a range of grass roots campaign groups, projects and organisations, and local activists, participating in the exhibition, covering a variety of issues from homelessness (The Homeless Period Liverpool, Real Love Street team), workers rights, austerity (Merseyside People’s Assembly Against Austerity), fascism (Unite Against Racism), sexism, misogyny (Reclaim the Night, Liverpool Stands with American Women, The Women’s Organisation), homophobia, refugee rights, nuclear disarmament (Merseyside Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament), and the Tory Governments relationship with Trump and the DUP. Whilst these are diverse issues, they are all underpinned by the want for a fairer, equal and more peaceful society.
How are creative and cultural circles involved in protest in Liverpool? Can a form of protest be art?
The connection between art and activism, music and activism, is well established, we only have to look at folk music and feminist art to evidence that. So artists and creatives can contribute to contemporary political debates and issues, and I think that’s especially important in recent times when the gap between rich and poor is as wide as it’s ever been, when we have the rise of the far right, when austerity measures are having a major human impact, when women are still treated as objects and when domestic violence and sexual harassment are as rife as ever. So for me personally, art should be political, in turn acting as a form of protest and activism and contributing towards conscious raising and awareness of a range of cultural, social and political issues. Although, it must be in combination with protest, social research and community action, among other things, I don’t think it can achieve change alone.
But for art to be political and to effectively call for change and have social impact, it has to be socially engaging, include the voices of local communities, move outside of white walls and reach, engage and include a wider range of people. It can often fail to do that, particularly in circles where art is deliberately exclusive and not particularly diverse. The art world does still tend to be white and male, and not always representative of the working classes, and that must have implications for the role it can play in protest and activism more generally.
Has the function and means of protest in Liverpool changed over time?
To some extent the means of protest has changed or has expanded due to technologies, for example, social media and online petitions are now an important part of campaigning and a useful platform in social and political movements at local, national and international level. They can be useful in spreading the message online and at times in getting a larger number people to attend demos. But that’s the key, getting people to the streets and involved in their local communities in a more traditional sense. Since Brexit and the election of Trump there’s been more of an awareness of injustice and equality and an obvious rise in fascism. But I think a lot of people are still reluctant and may be weary of protests due to the negative connotations attached to them by the right wing press. It you haven’t been to one before, it may seem a bit daunting, but they’re always peaceful and friendly.
In places like Liverpool that has a history socialism and the left, it can sometimes feel like progress is being made due to the echo chamber, so it’s important to be aware that there is a need to move beyond preaching to the converted. This also applies to social media, whilst it is being used effectively by the left and many social justice groups, it is often an echo chamber, and it can’t be relied on as the only means of protest.
In the same way as activism cannot be reduced to reposting and sharing information online, activism isn’t just about attending demonstrations either, but working with local communities, projects and charities to address the issues we so passionately want to change, and interacting with those who may not be active or engaged in politics.
Placard by Lois Tierney (@LoisTierney93)
How can Liverpool protest injustices faced by those who are voiceless, or have little means of organising protest? (i.e. homelessness)
It’s vital that the voices of those who may appear voiceless, are included and listened to, and that can be done simply by talking to them, working with them and making sure their real life experiences are understood and listened to and expressed, and that alternative solutions are put forward as a result. Activism and protest goes beyond demonstrations and marches and involves conducting research on issues effecting local communities, and getting involved in projects, charities and campaigns that work with and support those effected and vulnerable groups. So for example, in the case of homelessness, many people working with the homeless locally, including myself and many of the individuals exhibiting, class themselves as activists, and believe it is vital that we include their voice in all the work that we do.
Has the current tension arising from the gentrification of the Baltic Triangle had a bearing on the choice of venue for the exhibition?
Well interestingly, the exhibition was originally meant to be held in another gallery within an artist led studio based on Victoria Street. Now unfortunately due to the increasing takeover of the city’s buildings by private companies, the building in which the studio/gallery, along with many other creative studios and businesses, are based, has been sold off and is being turned into yet another hotel.
Like in other cities across the country, there has been protest against gentrification here in Liverpool. With regards to the venues stance on gentrification, as an events and creative space, they do appreciate that such venues are part of this ‘gentrification’ narrative, making the area more attractive to developers. I know that they are not opposed to development in the Baltic Triangle, but importantly, hope that if it is done it is in a conscientious and organic way that safeguards existing businesses in the area.
Whilst looking for a new studio to relocate too, myself and others came across the opportunity to set up a new artist led studio here at Constellations, and with that comes the opportunity to use the gallery space. The venue and staff have been fantastic in setting up the studio and have very much allowed it to be artist led and have went out of their way to help us get off our feet. I find it’s a really ethical and socially aware venue, with a history of supporting a range of initiatives (e.g. The Homeless Period, initiatives supporting refugees in Calais, Real Love street team) and hosting events touching on important issues such as women’s rights and place in the arts (e.g. Grrrl Power exhibition), which reinforced the decision to hold the exhibition here.
Also, what I like about exhibiting in a gallery space like Constellations, is that it is not purely a gallery, it’s a space for music, food and cultural events which means it has a large footfall, including many people who attend the venue without the intention of viewing the artworks, but instead, stumble across it. So here at Constellations there’s not only a captive audience, but also the opportunity to reach a range of people who may not have attended the exhibition if it had been in a more traditional gallery.
The exhibition is supporting MRANG, Merseyside Refugee & Asylum Seekers Pre & Postnatal Support Group and The Homeless Period Liverpool.
Liverpool: A City Of Protest runs from 20th July – 13th August at Constellations. A launch party with DJs and street food takes place at Constellations on Thursday 20th July.