The Art of Relating Sites

21 Oct img_3315cr

Earlier in the Summer, on consecutive days, I had the pleasure of seeing Laura Oldfield Ford and George Shaw give talks about their respective exhibitions at Grand Union, in Birmingham, and the National Gallery.

I had researched both artists as part of my contextual study in edgelands, site specific art and psychogeography for my Creative Arts BA, and they feature in my extended written project. The paper investigates some strategies that artists employ in relation to site-based art, focusing particularly on painters. It reviews the extent to which a selection of contemporary artists measure up to the challenge of Miwon Kwon’s relational specificity. Kwon asserts that they should deal with the:

“uneven conditions of adjacencies and distances between one thing, one person, one place, one thought, one fragment next to another, rather than invoking equivalences one thing after another” (Kwon, 2002).

It is suggested that psychogeography offers a productive means of making connections between adjacent places in time and space in order to foster new and unexpected perspectives on a site.

You can download the essay here:  160406-a-howe-the-art-of-relating-sites_final


Laura Oldfield Ford’s show Cnothic Reverb was the result of a residency at Grand Union in the Summer of 2015.  It comprised a 30 min sound installation (city sounds, music fro 80s, 90s, 00s) and Ford’s voice describing thoughts, reminiscences and experiences of Birmingham) plus black and white photographs and copies of drawings posted onto wooden and citex billboards constructed into an enclosed rectangular layout within the gallery.  Ford’s characteristic pink was used as coloured fluorescent strip tube lighting.

Walking around Digbeth beforehand, I had very similar experiences to those explored by the artist in her powerfully atmospheric show.  Like Ford, I was returning to this area of Birmingham for the first time in about 20 years. Some areas were threatening (was this just because I was no longer familiar) but other areas felt the same (eg the areas around the Custard Factory).  There were large amounts of graffiti, security devices/fencing/wire and lots of dark “goings-on” behind industrial metal doors and boarded up buildings.  There seemed to be endless car/taxi respray and maintenance workshops interspersed with gentrifying art/music/design studios.

There was a strange eclectic mix of furtive people in alleyways, doing something on phones, snogging in corners, sawing a wooden crate for some unfathomable reason, standing in groups on corners talking or smoking.  There were arty or well dressed affluent folk and more “ordinary” working folk on their way home.  Some photos I took on the day:

There was a buzz, a tension.  As I got used to the atmosphere, I reacclimatised and felt more comfortable, invisible.  But still I didn’t fancy walking down onto the canal towpath, through a graffiti-covered seating area, populated initially by 3 overexcited kids, possibly drunk, on drugs or glue or just being kids off school, and later by two wizened old drunks.

Walking out of the glitz of the Birmingham Bull Ring towards Digbeth I was struck by the rapid change in the people from bright happy shoppers to more downbeat individuals waiting listlessly for buses, ambling along or homeless sitting on any available vantage point.  I was accosted (politely) for help by an Irishman, and given looks of cautious suspicion by people of Asian or eastern European appearance.

Am I remembering something that really happened, something someone else talked to me about or something I just imagined.  For example, returning to town via the large area of land left vacant ready for the incoming HS2 station, I saw the derelict shell of the Fox and Grapes pub on Freeman Street.  That name rings a bell, but I recall going to a different pub on or near that road (The Vine?) but the Fox and Grapes did seem familiar.  I “remembered” a Summer afternoon, mid-week when I went there, played pool, listened to the Happy Mondays (Thrills, Pills and Bellyaches LP) with either my brother(s) or possibly one of my Moseley mates, or was it someone else?  Or am I just imagining the whole thing?  Our perception of the world we see is based on memories and hearsay that we just can’t rely on.

Ford’s commentary alluded to place, her memories of pubs and buildings, and the history of local events such as the Battle of Saltley Gate” during the Miner’s Strike of 1973 – she said “we need to remember when “we were on top”– and “make new positive trajectories” that may modify the writing of political history or instigate actions along these new trajectories.

The conversation with Dr Phil Jones (urban geography lecturer at Birmingham University) was slightly disappointing but it did prompt some good insight into Ford’s thinking and psychogeographical methods – using the derive as a starting point for her work.  Despite her relatively diminutive stature and neat appearance, she has an aura of anger and history of living in squats and political activism.  I asked her about whether her work may increasingly draw on the optimistic aspects (in reference to her positive trajectories which in turn referenced Walter Benjamin’s  writings) to suggest future solutions.  I had previously heard criticism of her, because despite her anger, she fails to make positive alternative proposals – and indeed she avoided doing so when asked directly by Phil Jones.  I can see that there are signs in her paintings of the positive aspects of community cohesion.  She acknowledged my support but did not say much more about whether her approach may change to a more optimistic, constructive view.  In a way, why should she?  Art can be about raising issues and asking questions, expressing anger … without necessarily having all the answers.

On the following day I travelled to London to see “My Back to Nature” by George Shaw at the National Gallery.

In reading the excellent website by Duncan McLaren Scenes from the Passion, following his work in detail, I became more aware how autobiographical Shaw’s paintings of the Tile Hill estate are. They are not just nostalgic reminiscences of places he knew growing up, the paintings reflect Shaw’s moods and his experience after the death of his father.  (Shaw ceased painting for some time after this event).  For example, paintings of tree trunks in earlier work were revisited but now they were literally truncated, chopped down or burnt and vandalised.  Clearly a metaphor for life that I had not fully considered previously. Trees become anthropomorphised, and are certainly corporeal in several paintings, including this new exhibition. Similarly, Shaw’s paintings of fences, walls and other barriers perhaps reflect some of the feelings of frustration and loss he had in coming to terms with life after his father’s death.

The exhibition press release is here.  There is some interesting insight in the touring information sheet, revealing some of the mythological background to the paintings, and also a glimpse of some Shaw’s studies in his studio space at the National.  I was aware that there is a considerable background of cultural references behind Shaw’s paintings, and he evidently gives each work a great deal of thought.  This is reflected in his writings, and interviews.  Certainly a line can be drawn from a Neo-Romantic heritage to Shaw’s work.  He lacks the political anger of Ford, while taking a more realist, pragmatic, honest view of the contemporary landscape.  Perhaps closer to the paintings of Sutherland, Nash and Piper than Ford’s urban viewpoint.

In his residency at the National Gallery as part of the Associate Artist scheme, Shaw has interpreted paintings from the collection whilst keeping within his known territory of the woodland near the Tile Hill estate.  The paintings are inspired particularly by Titian’s Death of Actaeon and Diana and Actaeon.  Poussin and Constable are also references, and it was fascinating to see the exhibition and view these paintings face to face.  The blue plastic sheeting, the fragmented porn mags, and graffiti on tree trunks take on new significance in the paintings, and I see the links with the old.  I am also reminded of the passage about the English affinity for woodland, (and the oak tree in particular) in Schama’s “Landscape and Memory”.

The interview with Shaw in the a-n website also provides some interesting insight,  as does this BBC Radio 4 interview.

There is a review of the exhibition in the Observer here.  And an earlier review in the Guardian here.

The review in the Telegraph was less enamoured with the exhibition and is not impressed by Shaw’s contemporary interpretations of the paintings in the National Gallery.  It does not seem to make the connections with Shaw’s earlier work.  This is what they say:

“Gone are the goddesses and forest nymphs, replaced by discarded beer cans and the scattered pages of porn mags. Elsewhere Shaw depicts a tree trunk with a large phallus graffitied on it.

In short, he opts for slightly coarse, 21st-Century twists on age-old erotic myths, bringing the illicit sex and drunkenness of works like Poussin’s Triumph of Pan into the present day.

In one scene – the ironically titled Call of Nature – Shaw himself can be seen urinating against the foot of a tree, but this is the only figure we see. The other scenes are entirely depopulated; in some cases they’re so bare even the trees are bereft of leaves. Does Shaw want us to pause for thought about how modern man has despoiled his landscape?”

I don’t think Shaw is making a strong ascerbic point about human impact on nature (although he is making a point), but he is drawing attention to the fact that nature can resist and thrive in spite of human disregard. At least, that is my thinking on the subject. Shaw’s perspective is complex.  I suspect he found the woodland of his youth a place of refuge and calm, but also of threat and darkness.  Certainly, he sees the litter and casual disregard for nature as symptomatic of contemporary human attitudes.  Yet he also views the woodland as representing a place of freedom.  The meticulous style of painting is surely evidence of Shaw’s love for the woodland/nature – and this is also seen in his paintings of shabby housing and wasteland.  The painting of Shaw urinating against a tree, is more ambiguous, perhaps recalling a time when he was not so observant or caring of nature.  Or perhaps, it acknowledges something in himself that is always at heart a grimy urbanite, someone who can never have true affinity with nature.

Shaw reveals that initially he saw the residency as an opportunity to change his style or subject matter, and indeed some of the early work comprises 14 charcoal self-portraits in the positions of Christ in the Stations of the Cross (which he knew from his local church in Coventry).  While these offer a different perspective on the artist, and they do relate to other work in the National Gallery, they do not sit easily for me alongside the woodland paintings he returned to, of which Shaw has made a huge number during the 2 years.  I should not be so surprised by the self-portraits since Shaw studied performance art, not painting, in his first fine art degree.

One of the main technical changes Shaw made in this exhibition was to move away from painting on board (mdf or plywood) and to use canvas, which relates with the materials used by the Old Masters in the Gallery.  He still used the Humbrol enamels, which he says, he initially adopted as a means of distancing himself from the established history of oil painting. The enamel paint is quite dark and glossy on board, but it seemed softer and less reflective on canvas.  Either Shaw is refined his technique, or the canvas allows for greater subtlety.

I admire the way in which Shaw has found a voice that rarely strays from a specific location and landscape, and yet he is able to layer on multiple meanings and moods that reflect both his own personal story, but also wider views on society.  Shaw uses a familiar place to make universal statements.  My own range of painting subjects and places is more diverse than Shaw’s, and at the moment, I would find it restrictive to stay focused on one site.  But it is useful to think about how I can use motifs or themes that I revisit frequently to reflect thoughts and views which may have a tangential connection to what appears to be the main subject in the painting.

Trees and woodland, for example, regularly feature in my work (eg “Ours Too” – the rope swing painting or “Ours” –  the den painting), and I made a book some time ago collecting various paintings and photographs together with haiku poems by Colin Blundell, called “We’re Not Out of the Woods Yet”.  I can see many connections with George Shaw in the topographical visual aesthetic, the corporeal tree trunk, the “mistreatment” of woodland by people or rather the use of liminal spaces for experimentation and play, such as kids making dens, trying cigarettes and alcohol.  My painting “Trunk” has some similarities with Shaw’s preoccupation with tree trunks.  It shows my own geometric aesthetic, and I recognise the parallel verticals which feature in others of my paintings.

There is no doubt that woodland was a formative landscape during my childhood and teenage years when I used to go into Ecclesall Woods near my house in Sheffield, in much the same way that it was for George Shaw.  Now Shaw has established such a strong identity for himself with the edgelands, I feel slightly intimidated in trying to forge my own identity with this subject matter.  This is a little like how Shaw must have felt during his 2 year residency, walking in past the Velazquez and Rubens.

In the evening I attended the event: George Shaw in conversation with Paul Farley (edgelands poet and co-author with Michael Symmons Roberts of “Edgelands: Journeys into England’s True Wilderness”)

There was inevitably some mutual self-indulgence in this conversation but some of the points I took included:

  • the edgelands are not really feral, they are not wilderness, they are only yards from “civilisation” where one can hear car alarms, children shouting etc;
  • the woodlands are places only adolescents (and criminals) feel empowered to experiment in because there are no rules, no CCTV, no parents, no one is watching;
  • for others they are a place of threat of violence and wild behaviour or a place to rediscover the liberation of adolescence;
  • there are only a limited number of narrative themes, whether Shaw really sees these themes, or whether he creates/constructs a scenario based on classical references;
  • edgelands have stopped being the unnoticed landscape, and by the very nature of their being explored are being changed.

The End is Looming

20 Sep Postbox loom band Andrew Howe

Everyone has seen Royal Mail elastic bands scattered along footpaths and driveways.  This litter phenomenon is a frequent cause of complaint in the populist media.  I am reliably informed that the bands changed from red to a pale beige in 2010. Apparently, the red bands were more biodegradable and “officially” easier to spot… but it didn’t seem to reduce the numbers being cast to the ground.  Perhaps they were changed back to blend in a bit better with the dust, or may be beige is cheaper.  (Elastic bands cost Royal Mail nearly £1billion per annum)

Birds peck at them.  They get caught on hedgehogs. Being the good waste and resources consultant, I began collecting them for reuse.

The craze for loom bands came and went.  The Government sold off the Royal Mail.  I decided to make a small contribution to returning the bands to the Royal Mail via my local postbox:

Post box loom band Andrew Howe

Post box loom band Andrew Howe

Post box loom band Andrew Howe

Post box loom band Andrew Howe

Post box loom band Andrew Howe

Post box loom band Andrew Howe


You can do this more formally if you like, by sending them, free of charge, to: Royal Mail, Rubber Band Recycling Department, Freepost, Tomb Street, Belfast BT1 1AA.  But I’d like to think these little interventions will proliferate on many more postboxes around the country.  My band has been in place nearly a week, and either no one has noticed it, or people quite like it enough not to remove it.

Things come and go , some things go round and round, but there’s always an end eventually.

Qube Open

17 Sep Exodus detail Andrew Howe

An open art exhibition at the Qube gallery in Oswestry opened on Friday and runs until 7th November 2016.  The theme is Migration.

One of my works was selected.  Its an oil painting triptych that I painted a few years ago, before migration from Syria and various other countries across Africa and the Middle East became such headline news.

Exodus Andrew Howe

“Exodus”, oil on canvas, Andrew Howe

This painting is slightly adrift from my current research themes, although it fits in with my interest in walking,  It has never been shown before, and this seemed like an ideal opportunity to release it from my store cupboard into the world.

When I originally approached the painting I was aiming for a representation of how everyone has their own individual life journey.  Walking is the primary means by which humans establish their spatial understanding of their place on the Earth, and the need to explore is a natural instinct. It is a universal human experience to leave the familiar to venture into the unknown.  This might be a result of hostile, sometimes violent, circumstances, or by volition and curiosity.  The unknown may be a physical, intellectual or psychological territory.

The Qube Gallery is located at:

Oswald Road
SY11 1RB

Telephone: 01691 656882

Mon – Fri 9am – 5pm
Sat 9:30am – 12:30pm

The View on the Street

15 Jul road ahead closed

Further to my earlier announcement about the Loitering with Intent exhibition at the People’s History Museum, in Manchester, featuring a special edition of STEPZ zine, here is my article as published:

The View on the Street

The full text is reproduced below:

On considering the whereabouts of the People’s History Museum, I did what anyone these days would do, I checked Google Maps. I soon found myself roaming around Salford on Street View, looking through the “eyes of the Pegman”.
In the silent, frozen time of Street View, my mind created its own soundscape. Seeing the railway arches of the viaduct into Salford, I was transported back to Attercliffe, Sheffield, 1983. I am walking to British Rail’s permanent way maintenance depot. Beyond the viaduct on Furnival Road, there are glimpses through huge metal doors into the steelworks. Molten steel glows orange. I feel the subterranean boom and clangs of machinery. There is a sulphurous smell of coal.

I click on the white chevron…

Since it appeared in 2007, Google Street View has gone beyond mere novelty, and established itself as a near essential tool to many practitioners in urban design, environmental study and other site-related professions. With Street View it is possible to do preliminary reconnaissance or even avoid site visits altogether.
Street View has created the opportunity to explore more locations across the world than any individual could physically reach in a lifetime. On the face of it, this can be done safely, free from intimidation, and it is open equally to all. Or at least it is if you have internet access.

It would be nonsense to suggest that, in its current guise, it can in any way replace the experience of walking. However, as technological developments continue to advance, the virtual reality foreseen by William Gibson appears ever closer.

With Trekker busy tramping around national parks and pedestrian areas, Street View allows the user to veer off road. There are Street View-based web-tours in which users trigger recorded sounds. Google Cardboard and Photosphere can provide virtual 360o 3D experiences. People already insert their own images into Google Map. It is not a huge leap to incorporate video, sounds, physical sensations or real-time CCTV.

As Google makes more frequent updates, it offers the ability in some places to go back and review previous views and witness how the landscape has changed. This is akin to time travel. Street View becomes ever more synchronous with the present, and if viewing into the past becomes more universally available, then our disconnection from time and space will be complete.

Rebecca Solnit proclaimed that “walking is how the body measures itself against the world.”1 Rhythms of walking, ambient sounds, chance human encounters, and relating time and distance are integral to the pedestrian experience, which cannot be easily replicated. By contrast, Street View is like sensory deprivation, and any urge to meander off down an alleyway or over a fence is curtailed.

How will people approach the real world as Street View becomes a more pervasive everyday experience? Some people may become more sensitized to the visceral chaos of the city, while others navigate purely by series of images, headphones on, oblivious to the feel of the air on skin.

There are more sinister implications to Street View and its impact on public/private space. Many people find Street View an invasion of privacy. If Street View makes some places more easily accessible, could it also be used to make other places disappear? Perhaps so for those with sufficient power to maintain their privacy from Google’s cameras. What will become of public spaces if people retreat from them into a virtual world?

Businesses advertise and promote information on Google Maps. Street View facilitates further commercialisation of space, virtually, and by extension, in the real world. Google has appropriated editorial control, and all our movements within Street View can be tracked. People appear to have lost the battle for virtual space without realising it was there to be won.

Continuing my virtual dérive, I found this poem within the images of Street View:

Welcome you are now in Salford
No Stopping except taxis at any time
Controlled zone
We’re demolishing this structure to create an opportunity for a modern gateway building
Spin factory
Sounds from the other city
The Fall
The courage of one will change the world
Road Closed
£3 real deal
Earn it
For timetables and bookings download the app
We lead others follow
Ahead only
Road ahead closed
A fresh perspective
Warning CCTV cameras in operation on these premises 24 hour surveillance
Luxury city centre apartments for sale and to rent
Garden Lane
Keep out
“My four-year-old could’ve done that”
Zone ends

1 Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust. A History of Walking, 2001.

A couple of montages that accompanied my original draft are here (all images courtesy of Google):

Here are all the images from Google Street View as seen on my virtual derive through Salford.

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STEPZ II – Between the Rollerama and the Junkyard

1 Jul IMG_3740

Earlier this year in February, I was invited by Tina Richardson, (writer/academic/psychogeographer) and Ally Standing (artist/psychgeographer) to contribute to a special edition of the zine STEPZ.  The zine will feature, along with supporting artwork, in an upcoming exhibition at The People’s History Museum in Manchester, Loitering With Intent. The exhibition runs from 23 July to 13 October 2016.

Inspired by the lyrics of the Mancunian punk poet, John Cooper Clarke, this STEPZ II edition of the zine is Manchester and The North influenced, in particular looking at themes across urban space. The zine combines written pieces with visual elements such as photography, illustration and collage.

My written piece considers the impact of Google Street View on our perception of urban space.  Taking a virtual dérive from the People’s History Museum around Salford and Manchester, it is immediately apparent how, in its current form, Street View can only be a pale imitation of the experience of walking.  Yet Street View has created the opportunity to explore more locations across the world than it would be physically possible to travel to in a lifetime, safely and, arguably, equitably to all with internet access.

I reflect on how increasing use and applications of Street View may influence how we approach walking in the real world in the context of future technological developments.  For example, will we become more or less sensitive to the sensory and psychological affect of the urban environment?  What will become of public spaces if people increasingly retreat from them into a virtual world?

It concludes with a short poem created from imagery and found text recorded during the virtual dérive.

I’ll post a copy of my article and provide links to the zine nearer the date of the exhibition.

The zine was produced at by Rope Press on a Risograph with a traditional “low production style” zine aesthetic in two colours.

STEPZ II in production, image courtesy of Tina Richardson

STEPZ II in production, image courtesy of Tina Richardson

Tina has published a taster blog at:

And here’s a blog to advertise the zine:

The exhibition and associated events at the People’s History Museum are organised by The LRM (Loiterers Resistance Movement), a Manchester based collective interested in psychogeography, public space and uncovering the secret stories of the city.  Since 2006 they have been organising public walks, dérives (drifts), games and spectacles offering new ways to explore the streets.

Against the Inevitable

8 Jun Entropy, Against the Inevitable, Andrew Howe

My Canon camera has become afflicted with the dreaded ERR099 fault, and I fear its final demise may be imminent.  Before this, and perhaps as some kind of forewarning or omen, I found myself taking shots of seemingly futile patch repairs and supports to bits of infrastructure facing the inevitable drift from order into ruin and chaos. Its hard to resist a morbid fascination in the relentless entropic process of disintegration and gradual takeover of vegetation and other organic growth.

These photographs were taken in and around Shrewsbury and Walsall towards the end of 2015 and early 2016.

The Minutes

18 Mar 20140505_9999_135

My “In Parallel” exhibition has been running for a couple of weeks or more, and has another week to go.  I’m receiving some very positive feedback and its certainly creating some interest.  I delivered a talk about the ideas and motivations behind the project at the Participate Contemporary Artspace gallery last Wednesday 16th March, which was well received too.  I’m still reflecting on some of the ideas and themes in the project, so it was a useful exercise to try and bring it all together, communicate it to people, and then answer some questions.

Some of the visitors to the exhibition have commented that it was useful to read my book “The Minutes” first, as it gives an insight into how my ideas developed during my walks to work over a twelve month period or more.  The book is displayed as part of the exhibition, and I had thought that it was more of a supplementary piece rather than the key introduction.  Other visitors have said that they preferred to see the paintings in the exhibition first and form their own view, without having any preconceptions set by the book.  So it is interesting to consider the impact of the book on the exhibition experience.

The book comprises photographs of the business park/office and edgelands (most of which have been featured in this blog in earlier posts).  The photographs are coupled with text describing my perceived experience, or phenomenology, of these environments at specific times and dates over a twelve month period.  Hence, the title refers to the minutes during which I recorded my perceptions.  I was interested in the “parallel universes” of the business park and edgelands, what was happening in one “universe” when I was observing the other.  To paraphrase Hans Peter Feldmann, I was interested in the unexceptional 95% or so of the day when “nothing” was happening.

My interpretation of what phenomenology means to me is that our mind passively receives sensory stimuli from the external world. This is an objective process.  The mind then internalises these stimuli by actively responding either with emotion or thought or both.  So there are two processes of perception and affect.

  1. Perception – tends to the objective
  2. Affect – tends to the subjective

This illustrated in this diagram, based on Yi-Fu Tuan’s ideas about how humans gather experience:


The Muppets make a more amusing explanation of phenomenology here.

In the book, I concentrated on the perception part, allowing the reader to respond to the “affect”.  It was quite difficult not to respond to the affect myself, and I did veer into a more subjective form of writing in several places.
You can preview a small selection of the pages in the book here: