Art and Industry Part 1 – Play / Pause

Art and Industry Part 1: Play / Pause, Middlesbrough, Saturday 4 June 2016

I grew up on industrial Teesside, an area possibly much-maligned in the nation’s thinking (where it imagines anything at all), but for which I retain a lot of affection. During my 1970s childhood, all of my schoolmates’ Dads worked either at ICI (where my Dad was a lorry driver) or at British Steel, two long-gone titans of British industry. Increasingly I’m feeling the need to revisit Teesside, conceptually and physically, being as it is a complicated melting pot of post-industrialism, severe social inequality, culture-led regeneration, and breathtaking landscapes – both natural and man-made. It is in my DNA. It is a region somehow apart from everywhere else, and definitely different. Its day, I hope, is yet to come.

So I was intrigued to attend Play / Pause, at the Heritage Gallery in Middlesbrough, an open event organised by Mark Devereux Projects as part of represented artist Nicola Ellis’ ongoing research project into the turbulent history of UK Steel. Ellis’ father is an engineer in the steel industry and so she’s always enjoyed an insider’s view and this has ultimately led her to examine steel as a sculptural material in her artistic practice.

Nicola Ellis and John Warman
Artist Nicola Ellis and Councillor John Warman.

During her recent touring show ‘More room for error’, Ellis created a new, site-responsive work for &Model Gallery here in Leeds: thin, welded steel rods pierced the walls and floor of the entire three-storey space in an apparently endless loop akin to a colossal metal doodle. The welded joints, normally hidden, were here placed centre-stage. Ellis has studied traditional steelworking techniques, only to subvert them by creating works with deliberately visible ‘bad’ welding.

Continuing her research into the steel industry, the ‘Play / Pause’ project has taken Ellis to centres of production in Scunthorpe, Middlesbrough and Port Talbot, meeting with current and ex-workers, artists with industry experience, heritage experts, fabricators, and representatives from local authorities, among others. This latest event in Middlesbrough brought together individuals from the arts and from the steel industry, to share their experiences and encourage discussion about the industry’s past and its possible futures. During the day there were presentations from Councillor John Warman, Mayor of Neath and passionate campaigner on behalf of the Port Talbot steelworks where he worked for over 30 years; Tony Charles, artist and director of Middlesbrough’s Platform A Gallery and a former steelworker for 16 years; and husband and wife Matthew and Joy Buckley. Matthew works in the power station at the Scunthorpe steelworks, and Joy works at nearby 20-21 Visual Arts Centre in the town.

Part of my motivation for attending this event was to continue to think through a question that has interested me ever since the project to create The Tetley (which I co-founded in 2013) began, given that it involved the repurposing of a post-industrial building, the former Directors’ offices of the Joshua Tetley & Son brewery, as a space for contemporary art. The steel girders that support The Tetley were, incidentally, forged in the legendary Dorman Long factory in Middlesbrough. The Heritage Gallery itself is housed within the stunning former offices of the Cargo Fleet Iron Company, built in 1916 and now being repurposed as modern offices as well as the Gallery and a café.

The question I’ve been pondering is this: Do art and industry have meaningful things to say to each other? Taking on a post-industrial building, especially one with such recent and emotive history as The Tetley, concerned me in many ways. It’s possible to see contemporary art as parasitic upon these corpses of decaying industry – our country is littered with them and not a few have found a new life through the arts. Whilst it’s also possible to celebrate the creative repurposing of these buildings for the public benefit, it seems appropriate (perhaps essential) to acknowledge and respect that history rather than sweep it under the carpet and move on.

At The Tetley we did this through an opening programme in three parts: ‘A New Reality’ was spread over nine months from 2013-14, during which artists including Emma Rushton & Derek Tyman, James Clarkson, Sam Belinfante and Simon Lewandowski, Rehana Zaman, Rob Kennedy, Ben Cain, Aidan Moesby, Rachel Adams, COPY, Edmund Francis, Stephen Iles, and Nous Vous all examined the history and future use of the building and wider site, focusing on themes of labour, fading histories, and the cyclical process of change.

During the Play / Pause event, the speakers’ presentations turned repeatedly to ideas of making and production, usefulness, camaraderie and collaboration, politicization and the unions, public subsidy and sustainability, the market and the role of the EU that all felt highly relevant in the context of individual artistic practice today and of course the function of the contemporary art institution. Councillor Warman spoke compellingly about the ‘industrial vandalism’ that has torn apart local communities supported by the steelworks, and about the shared cultural values that unite workers, families, and local economies dependent on the industry, across Port Talbot and Teesside. The statistics are sobering – for every steelworker’s job lost, another five are lost in the wider regional economy, in the service and delivery industries clustered around these centres of manufacturing.

The failure of successive governments to invest in the future of UK steel and other manufacturing industries, and the way the steel industry in particular has been kicked around like a political football, was a common theme running through presentations and comments from attendees, including several who had worked in its middle management. Councillor Warman made it clear he will be voting #Remain on 23 June, as Wales has received far greater subsidy from the EU than it has from central government. Other key issues were raised: that steel is also a strategic issue in relation to defence; the way that the current UK government is blocking an EU ruling on tariffs that should be applied to Chinese steel imports, meaning that British steel can’t compete on price; and the quality issues that Chinese imports present – both the construction and automobile industries depend on the highest quality product being available.

All in all, Play / Pause was a fascinating event, bringing together a slightly unusual gathering of interested, and passionate, individuals, and intertwining contemporary art and industry in a way that demonstrated there is in fact much synergy between participants in both sectors. Perhaps this came into focus most clearly when Councillor Warman read out, despite telling the gathering ‘I’m not an artist, and I’m not a poet,’ a poem he had felt compelled to write in protest at what is being done to the industry which he said is in his lifeblood. It was rather a good poem too, and was published by the local Port Talbot paper. In a moment of great cultural crisis such as this, the ex-steelworker reaches for his pen, the artist picks up her welding gun.

Nicola Ellis’ research project Play/Pause is funded by Arts Council England.

www.markdevereuxprojects.com