Alexander Hetherington

Nina Edge, Public View, Bluecoat Gallery, Liverpool, 2017

‘a public enquiry into the artist as the subject, the artist on public view’


It begins with a reunion.


And an invitation to compose this text brought about by a conversation with visual artist Nina Edge on returning to her practice and its projects situated from her home and studio at Kelvin Grove, Welsh Streets in Toxteth that I had written about for the Liverpool Independents Biennale in 2006. Independents being a sister or parallel programme to the Liverpool Biennale that gave focus to artists-led and grassroots activities from a more ‘open source’ curatorial perspective.


We meet and talk at the exhibition Public View at Bluecoat Gallery, Liverpool (4 February – 23 April 2017) curated by the art centre’s artistic director Bryan Biggs. Edge discusses her inclusion in the exhibition, which takes the form of an installation consisting of contra vision printed images of keys and a security operative’s details affixed brutally over the entrance way to a tinned-up building. These works are mounted over the glass surfaces of two tall floor-to-ceiling windows. Inactive from an exterior position they reveal their covert information when viewed within the gallery spaces. Edge outlines the work and its apparitional qualities through terms like ‘in the moment, conscious of its time, objects set in the now, pulling materials forward, and responds to the hierarchies and privileges of display.’ Meanwhile her installation acts as a pointer to the public art interventions Contravision and Nothing which form an agitational action upon the exterior of her home in Toxteth, a few miles outside of the city centre. Public View, meanwhile, is a dense presentation of sculpture, neon signs, sound works, paintings and video and brings together works by a digest of 100 artists who have previously exhibited at the gallery throughout its long history and association with national and international contemporary and avant-garde art practices.


For Independents in 2006 I wrote about a piece Edge made that took the form of an embroidered net curtain displayed within the windows of her home. This domestic mesh and political fabric, which emits contrasting properties of disguise and decoration, security and vulnerability, privacy and public, held within its delicate stitches a growing sense of anger around a proposal to demolish her home and the buildings of its surrounding streets. This urban planning regeneration programme, which in all honesty is an abbreviation for gentrification, was called Housing Market Renewal and led to the occupiers and tenants being evicted and the empty houses being boarded up with flat sheets of grey metal mesh or bricked up entirely and painted in shades of yellow, grey and pale mulberry, some of which resembles the stern palette of paintings by Mark Rothko.


Nina and I visit Kelvin Grove together and take a walking tour around these visibly traumatised and disordered streets. On her side of a lengthy road only three homes remain occupied, while Wynnstay Street parallel to Kelvin Grove is entirely unpopulated. That street’s rows and avenue of solid trees, are bleached of life and left inanimate. Nina describes an as-yet unrealised artwork of a curtain ‘made from lead weights sewn together with human hair’ that might express some of the emotional strands and physically oppressive burdens these streets have accumulated over the past twelve years. In my mind I imagine a toxified and immobile gold curtain by the late American artist Felix Gonzales-Torres kind of membrane, as pliable and permeable as the biological materials that compose the cells of the human body, [this] is a work of transitory passage—from life to death, public to private, the known to the unknown.’


After our conversation, walking tour and a closer inspection of the materials that make up Edge’s works Contravision and Nothing I decide to revisit a number of activities and projects by a range of artists that I have recently come into contact with, written about or in some cases participated in that I wanted to draw into the contexts and methods of her direct actions and complex and layered visual art practice. And in turn offer up a vocabulary of experience at the intersections between art, fiction and documentary; an evidence of how contemporary art constructs stories, especially on conflict or protest (with authenticity), and how these stories reach a public audience; and to points and places where the artist herself becomes the subject of her own illustrative and investigative materials and matters.



Twilight City, directed by Reece Auguiste in 1989 as part of the Black Audio Film Collective (made up of artists John Akomfrah, Reece Auguiste, Edward George, Lina Gopaul, Avril Johnson, David Lawson and Trevor Mathison and active between 1982 and 1998), is an elegiac poetic video essay on London’s changing economic forms: its enterprise zones, its demolition of social housing to make way for private housing (described in one voice-over as ‘architectural murder’), its foreign capital investments, the City’s stock exchange, and Conservative political policies originating from the Thatcher government. The video documents this bulldozer of modernisation, privatisation, gentrification and private capital and gain. As Reece Auguiste, then articulated in 1989, the film takes the shape of “a fictional letter from a daughter, Olivia, to her mother in Dominica that forms the narrative thread connecting interviews from (predominantly) black and Asian cultural critics, historians and journalists. The pace of the video, with its elegant melding of observational cinema, docu-fiction, re-enactments, sourced and found-footage, resembles a sleepwalker taking indirect passage through the city as dream or diary or archive: footage, interviews, anecdotes and observations layer up to describe London as a site of endless conflict. This is further revealed through its deliberations on the subject of protest, with a focus on civil disobedience and activism in response to Clause 28 and its laws to prohibit local authorities from ‘promoting’ homosexuality or gay ‘pretended family relationships’, intertwining these public demonstration with equivalences and narratives from the Civil Rights movement (its voices, actions, identities and communities) on immigration, exile and race. Black Audio Film Collective, emerging from these ‘superimposed’ periods of civil unrest and activism during the 1980s was ‘influenced by contemporary debate on post-colonialism and social theorists such as Homi Bhabha, Paul Gilroy and Stuart Hall, [and centred its] investigations of black identity/culture within the British experience while reworking the documentary to articulate new voices in British cinema.’


As London-based artist Katrina Palmer says of her 2015 work End Matter: ’I will compose a text solely comprised of end matter such as an epilogue, a postscript, an afterword, some addenda, or appendices etc. The shadowy quality of the work’s documentary vestiges will act as a memento to the missing body of the book.’ Palmer’s work that is constructed from absences, loss, removal, the missing, is formed of a publication, a publicly engaged sculptural installation and performative audio piece taking the form of a walking tour (which was also given as a radio broadcast) of the Isle of Portland in Dorset. And a particular focus on the Island’s ancient and magnificent quarries that have, for centuries, provided stone for some of London’s best-known buildings including Tower of London, St Paul’s Cathedral, part of Buckingham Palace, the British Museum, the National Gallery and the Cenotaph; as well as two of Liverpool’s Three Graces (The Royal Liver Building, The Cunard Building and the Port of Liverpool Building), Manchester’s central library, and the United Nations’ headquarters in New York City.


Katrina Palmer’s script, because it is a text asking to be read aloud, making the voice its living material, is made of reports from bureaucrats whose job it is to chronicle and catalogue the removal and loss of the stone – the island’s momentous hollowing out. Transcripts from audio recordings from an unknown writer as she prepares the draft of a short story, and who, during the flow of the piece appears to have gone missing from her flat situated above the offices of an abandoned insurance company. An intertwining narrative of two sisters, Celestine and Hazeline, an embedded micro-drama titled The Quarryman’s Daughters, who choose to live, alone, on opposite sides of the Island (the quarries’ labourers are another ‘absence’ in the work, deceased or made redundant, a population of invisible migrant labour) sit alongside the observations of an ex-con called Ash, who, when his sentence on one of the island’s prisons is spent, chooses to live as vagrant among its limestone quarries – bright white stone and shingle filled with fossils and shells (imprints of the once-was and now departed). Ash talks throughout about ‘carving out the stone that he will use to bury himself.’


‘Absence is a weightless thing, but it can make for a weighty subject,’ writes Patrick Langley in his review of End Matter for Frieze magazine. He describes Palmer’s textual and spoken overlaying of illusory and documentary ‘excavations’ of Portland Island as ‘compensatory fictions’ to its allocation as place for ‘physical removal, physical loss, and mass displacement’. It is a site, whose purpose and presence, is made for demolition. Acts of removal, a scrutiny of material that has already disappeared, and the negative spaces formed from processes of demolition shift from person to person in Palmer’s work, as each begins to articulate their own experiences of ‘an accumulation of identity through its depletion’. Absence and presence unfold and refold, the missing people – and the missing text they inhabit, this is ‘end matter’ (also known as back matter) after all – can be read as ghosts and silhouettes.


Katrina Palmer’s End Matter was commissioned by the art organization ArtAngel, which had also produced, in the early 1990s, the British artist Rachel Whiteread’s sculptural work House, which delivered an equally poetic and public image of presence through absence and subtraction, and its shifting apparitions of the internal-as-external set throughout with shades of light-grey, and is itself shaped by an earlier work Ghost, which cast an interior drawing room into solid form. Fabricated from cast concrete and freestanding so that it could be seen from all sides, House was sited at Grove Road, East London from 25 October 1993 until the work’s demolition on the 11 January 1994. Grove Road, where House was constructed, was a typical row of Victorian terraced houses of a style built throughout the east end of the city of London during the late 1800s: sensibly proportioned with decorative trimmings, while parts of the road had been destroyed in the Second World War to be replaced by the 1950s with temporary housing. These prefabs were removed as new tower blocks were built in response to the kind of economic regeneration schemes devised in collaboration by London Borough Councils and private property developers over the course of the 1970s, 80s and 90s. The final houses on Grove Road were demolished by 1993, while Whiteread would that year win the Turner Prize for, as François Cheng might describe, her simultaneously ‘empty and full’ public sculpture.



Meanwhile in 2015, the Turner Prize was awarded to the collective Assemble for the Granby Four Streets projects, a short distance away from the Welsh Streets where the artist Nina Edge centres her practice and its transmission of enfolding activisms. The group, who began working in 2010, are comprised of 18 members working with a melding of art, architecture and interior design set in collaborative configurations on public projects. These, the group suggest address, a ‘disconnect between the public and the ways in which places are made.’ Often out of dereliction or phantoms of regeneration, the schematic of their projects oscillates between notions of public participation, sustainability, affordable housing, cultural heritage and reminiscence, economic revival or, as we have seen before, with forms of narrative ‘compensation’. It is worth noting that the Turner Prize that year was sited at Glasgow’s Tramway, a former tram depot that was reimagined as an art space, and saved from demolition, as part of the city’s Year of Culture in 1990, an initiative which has established a continuum of other forms of cultural regeneration, happily colluding with the political administrations of the moment.


An image that brings Whiteread’s ideas of sculptural minimalism, erasing and obstacle into the social observations and interactions of art, place, regeneration and participation that Assemble build within their practice might be that of Italian artist Lara Favaretto’s Momentary Monument – The Stone, for the Liverpool Biennale 2016 installed at Rhiwlas Street, a few streets away from Edge’s Kelvin Grove home, bringing it into conceptual embrace with her Nothing and Contravision works. Favaretto’s piece, a massive, hollowed out granite stone block installed centrally in the street between the boarded up derelict rows forms a conversation with Edge’s work on the material nature and aesthetic properties of this form of occupation and subsequent confiscation, on its acts of memorialising and of vanishing: of severe surfaces, metal grids, aluminium grills, sharpened edges, cruel settlement and violent interruptions.


In turn the graphic language, vivid, saturated colour ways and temporary physical objects that declare areas under the ‘occupation of regeneration’ projects – their signposts, for sale or to rent signs are habitually re-appropriated into Edge’s contexts for public discourse. Edge describes this; the façade to her house is festooned in double-sided placards, while internal wallpaper collages that can be seen when ‘frontages are torn away’ garland the windows, as an act of ‘hyper-occupying’. I am reminded that these symbols are attempts to ‘communicate with broader audiences than art audiences’ and contain through this shimmering surface of visibility and invisibility a drama played out between the internal and external, the public and private. This produces the ‘theatre’ necessary to create, via Hannah Arendt’s diction on assembly and protest, ‘the space of appearance’ and its oratory.


In 2014 the Collective Gallery in Edinburgh hosted a symposium and series of workshops led by Jacob Dahlgren, Mitch Miller, Cristina Lucas, Nils Norman and Assemble, Florrie James and Dennis McNulty entitled How Near is Here?, a shared ‘enquiry centered on locality – a complex term that refers to geographical surroundings, the people occupying an area, or the buildings and spaces that define it. The programme examined ‘the urban’, why locality is a contested and of widespread concern now; while its key questions ‘what constitutes the local now?’ and ‘what role does art (and culture) play in constructing a locality?’ stimulated written, drawn, verbal and performed responses from its delegates that then might form attachments to the speakers’ case studies, past or current projects. One such focus was The Serpentine Gallery and its socially-engaged curatorial satellite space the Centre for Possible Studies and in particular its On the Edgware Road exhibition initiated by Sally Tallant and curated by Janna Graham and Louise Coysh, consisting of installations, films, poetry readings and performances and on view over the course of April 2012. The Edgware Road Project from which the exhibition was devised brought artists like Emily Wardill and Lili Reynaud-Dewar into spaces, lives and experiences of people, individuals and families on low incomes, migrant labourers and sex workers, based in this London neighbourhood during a time when it was experiencing blanket gentrification.


At the time, I wrote in response for an unpublished blog post: ‘Janna Graham draws into her presentation a sequence of ideas on conflict, the liminal, austerity, cuts to social support, of tensions between public and private, concerns relating to economic development, social housing and poverty. She speaks from a curatorial platform The Centre for Possible Studies, based (historically it seems the Centre has been de-housed) on the Edgware Road in London, this Centre is a satellite body of and is supported by The Serpentine Gallery, though she insists throughout their different, or opposing intentions, their differentiations. In this talk, contrastingly effervescent and pessimistic, flows ideas central to the austerity programme instigated by the Osborne-Cameron government in 2010: cuts, human (rights) (mis)management, its social machines that identify, target and expel the poor, the immigrant, the ‘housing precarious’, the sex worker. Graham talks about the ‘diplomatic effect’ and hijacking the word, phrasing and meaning of the term ‘curatorial’ to justify forms of social exclusion. She talks about policing (an artist as a kind of police-person, a substitute social cleanser, employed through ‘public art actions as surrogate gentrifiers’) and the act of memorialising: making archives of memories before shift-stepping those lives away from a building, a district and a community and replacing them with luxury housing. I write: ‘memories are raw materials that then draw in ‘value’’.


The Strawberry Thief is one of William Morris’ most popular and expensive designs for textiles using a combination of indigo-discharge and block-printing methods. It takes as its subject the thrushes, that Morris, an English textile designer, poet, novelist, translator, and social activist, found stealing fruit from his kitchen garden of his countryside home, Kelmscott Manor, in Oxfordshire. The Thief was originally intended for use as curtains for windows, draped on interior walls in parlours and drawing rooms or loose fabrics for furnishings. And despite the expense of the fabric it proved to be one of Morris’ most successful and enduring designs. In Nina Edge’s installation of The Thief, set within the windows of the ground floor of her Kelvin Grove home, and printed on a contra vision substrate, the thrushes have tiny keys in their beaks or appear to have died.



On view during the two-day open house project CITIZEN devised by Lucy Byatt, director of Hospitalfield House in Arbroath in late April 2017, the Mumbai-based artists’ collective CAMP presented a talk and screening of their video Al jaar qabla al daar (The neighbour before the house) produced between 2009 and 2011 made while working in Jerusalem, Israel. In an accompanying Skype narration group member and videographer Shaina Anand discusses their ideas of ‘landscape and mapping theory and the thresholds of authority’ and how it is applied to the production of this work, which sees a ‘series of video probes narrated by Palestinians into the landscape(s) of East Jerusalem. Shot with a security pan-tilt-zoom camera, these images show the before and after of instrumental surveillance and resettling: images of demolition, evictions, confiscation, barriers, border fences and walls, as well as methods of renaming districts, places and homes and a widespread use of exclusion orders, are described through the video as ‘three-dimension occupation’. Anand explains, ‘in these specific times and places, camera movements and live commentary become ways in which Palestinian residents evaluate what can be seen, but they cannot be seen in return, (like the meshes of Edge’s Strawberry Thieves and Wallpapers of the Dispossessed that disguise Kelvin Grove’s lived-in interiors) and speak about the nature of their distance and displacement from others.’ It is interesting to note that CAMP brought these experiences from Jerusalem to the earlier described project on the Edgware Road by the Centre for Possible Studies.


It ends with a pause.


And a note about an idea about Nothing, which comes from the publication New Ways of Doing Nothing an exhibition and publication that ‘considers moments of inactivity or refrain as potentially creative… This small anthology devotes itself to artistic production that opposes activity and instead gives an affirmative slant to forms of doing nothing or refraining’. Edge discusses her project Nothing as ‘protest through a direct act of inaction’. Her projects remains on informal ‘public view’, fixed into the portals of the external architecture of her home, beyond the timeline of Bluecoat Gallery’s formal Public View exhibition until, as Edge asserts, the ‘streets have been repaired’.


Footnotes (24 April 2017)


The Strawberry Thief, 1883, William Morris, (1834-1896) V&A Museum no. T.586-1919


New Ways of Doing Nothing, Kunstalle Wein, June 27 – October 12 2014, Sternberg Press, Berline 2014 Vanessa Joan Müller, Nicolaus Schafhausen and Cristina Ricupero

Alexander Hetherington