Saturday, 14 July 2007
getting agitated with art
the urban holding company is intent on waking up the world, one art attack at the time. Here bob asks a founding director of the creative co-op what they’re all about.
Jonathan Atkinson isn’t interested in making friends, but he does want to influence people.
Over the course of his chat with bob the 31 year old Middlesbrough-born Mancunian berates BP and Manchester Airport for their “green-wash” agendas (“tiny concessions in comparison to their huge environmental impacts”), the University for its links to BNFL and British Aerospace, while reserving his strongest criticism for the “neo-liberal cabal” that hold the reigns of power over our city.
They, he believes, are deliberately misleading us.
“There’s a party going on in the centre of town,” he observes, through glasses that are seemingly tinted with fertiliser rather than flowers, “but go a little bit outside the city centre, and it’s a different story.”
He explains; “The city council and various partnerships that run around it present Manchester as this booming city, as a city reborn. But actually if you look at the rwality of the situation Manchester has the highest death rate in the country, the highest levels of pollution in the country, it has extremely poor educational standards and the same goes for the transport network.”
“The facts tell you that it has a population that are really suffering, yet the PR just says how great it is. We’re trying to expose the truth behind that and encouraging people to decide for themselves what they genuinely think.”
If Atkinson is a dissident voice amongst the hoards of advocates for modern day Manchester, then it must be nice to know that he’s not alone.
The reason that he knows this for sure is that he works alongside six other co-conspirators at UHC, the arts co-operative he set up with three friends in 2002, and some 25 collaborators, all of whom wish to “effect social change through the creation of artwork and design.”
The neo-liberal junta are but one of their many targets, but one they’ve managed to score direct hits against with projects such as their OpenCity Repository (see www.opencity.org.uk) and last year’s mischievously provocative ‘Thin Veneer of Democracy’.
Here’s Jonathan to explain the latter: “A lot of our work is about creating debate and uncovering hidden information, so the Thin Veneer encapsulates what we’re all about.”
“It’s a 16ft long board table made from hand-made English oak. It depicts the relationships and networks at work within Manchester. The great and the good, in terms of companies and individuals, that form the cabal at the heart of the city; the people behind the market-led regeneration.”
“It doesn’t say anything damning in itself,” he continues, “it doesn’t say ‘this is a list of bastards in Manchester’. Its just a list, but some people seem to find that inherently threatening and it’s proved quite controversial.”
It could be argued that UHC’s stance is quite controversial in itself, railing against the process, namely that of regeneration and private investment, that is ostensibly designed to improve the city’s environment. But Atkinson won’t be swayed.
“The fundamental problems the city suffers from are exacerbated by the market-led development that’s happening at the core. Instead of tackling unemployment in the outlying wards we have jobs for university people that are coming form outside the area and buying flats in the centre of town. Most of the existing population are left with the jobs of security guards or working on the tills.”
“We’re concerned about some of the assumptions that are being made – that private capital is good, that public services can be filtered off and that the real social and environmental problems of the city can be ignored.”
Whether you agree with UHC’s far left of leftfield politics or nor, their determination and passion demands respect, and the same has to be said about their art.
Looking over the groups portfolio, 9 times out of 10 the work is hard hitting, impassioned and governed by something all too often missing from modern day artistic output: powerful ideas.
Take the pictured Spring Shrouds for example, a job UHC carried out in conjunction with the firebrand comedian Mark Thomas and some 45 volunteers. Sporting the natty legend ‘tree breathe – adverts suck’ the co-operative produced 100 of the sheaths and one bright Spring morning, May 4th in fact, slipped them over every JC Decaux six sheet poster site in the city centre.
The effect was stunning, the motivation simple – as Atkinson elucidates:
“It was a gift that we could give to Manchester’s commuters. To give them a temporary respite from the barrage of advertising that everybody who comes into the city suffers from.”
“It had a nice little idea at its heart and well received, but the company were quick to realise what was happening and take appropriate action. By the end of the day there was only a few left.”
Atkinson seems proud of the reaction that JCD were forced into, rather than upset at the transient impact of the campaign. But not all of UHC art and design is so short-lived. Two recent projects in particular have been developed to have lasting effects at both local and national level, with our interviewees’ first love – the environment – being the fulcrum of the activity.
“There’s an event called the Climate Camp that is going to take place in August at Heathrow and we’ve done their posters and design work for free.”
“We’ve centred on a bold statement,” he imparts with his now trademark, “it’s ‘you are not fucked.’ The idea being that you can have a positive influence and make a difference, which is better than leaving environment issues to the politicians and businesses. That’s been a real success so far.”
By the time bob hits the street UHC will be hoping that they’ve notched up another success with the second of their planet protecting initiatives, Wythenshawe Forever. This is a project they’ve produced with Wythenshawe FM and DEFRA to communicate climate change issues to ‘hard to reach’ communities. This will have been achieved with a ‘party without pollution’ on July 14th, where amongst other things, their container crate power station (pictured) will be creating clean, green energy for the revellers.
“It’s a way of reaching out to a communicating a problem that may be beyond the every day issues that they face. It’s collaborative, so we’re not being dictatorial and saying ‘right, climate change is happening. You need to be giving up this and doing that.’ We are working with people on an equal basis. That we can effect change form within rather than imposing a view from outside.” Another bold idea with conviction, passion and a positive agenda at its heart.
If UHC go on like this they’ll have to be careful. They might just end up making more friends than they think.
The find out more about UHC go visit www.uhc.org.uk. To be scared by one of Jonathan’s facts about Manchester read this… “Being stood outside Piccadilly Station for a day is the equivalent of smoking 22 cigarettes in terms of the pollution you’re exposed to.” There’s more of this kind of stuff at www.opencity.org.uk.