Where to start?
'Ebb and Flow' has been well over a year in the planning by artist Annie Harrison and writer and art historian Bob Gaunt. The pandemic and funding problems nearly scuppered it, but we decided in the spirit of Arte Povera, to go ahead with a DIY project on a shoestring budget. Since we can't pay anyone to do a slick social media job, we will be posting here, speaking directly and honestly about our project. And since we don't have the funds for a celebrity interviewer to kick things off, we decided to interview each other...
by Annie Harrison
I met up with art historian and writer Bob Gaunt in his small but charming home on the Rochdale canal, Gaunt was a psychiatric nurse in Manchester for many years until his interest in art led him to Manchester Metropolitan University to study for a BA in art history, followed by an MA in which he researched Arthur Dooley, the forgotten working class Liverpool sculptor.
Annie: Bob, can you tell us about this project?
Bob: This is our journey through northern cultural life as it is right now in the places that lie between Liverpool and Hull, our recent northern Cities of Culture. I am influenced by writers who have taken long walks of discovery through the English landscape. Northern cultural commentator Stuart Maconie retraced the route of the Jarrow Crusade to reveal the contemporary picture of economic and social poverty. Working class writer Kerry Hudson retraced her family’s migrations up and down Britain, escaping and returning to the nation’s poorest towns, in her quest to understand poverty today. Mike Carter followed the route of his father’s 1981 March for Jobs observing the still 'left-behind' communities along the way. And Anita Sethi walked the Pennine Way, an assertion of her right to belong here.
I am also interested in everyday material culture. Social (sur)realist artist Jeremy Deller's anthropological project 'Folk Archive' documents the kind of art objects and practices that would not even be considered as ‘art’ by the people who produce them: crop circles, hot dog stall ornamentations, sound systems, trade union banners. The Victoria & Albert Museum have collected lockdown NHS rainbows and exhibited them, recognising them as significant cultural artefacts.
These writers, artists and curators have inspired us to make our own journey of discovery, hopefully learning from people we meet along the way and witnessing the current state of the arts in those ‘in between’ Northern places.
Annie: Why do you think 'culture' has so long been seen as the preserve of the middle and upper classes?
Bob: The upper classes have long sought to ‘preserve our culture’, which actually meant, preserving the establishment's status quo, the hierarchies of who is important and who isn’t, and whose tastes, styles and cultural forms are important, and whose aren’t. They presented a static culture, but in fact, it is always changing. In the '60s, working class practices began to be seen as having cultural value: Pop and rock, Coronation Street, contemporary dance, social realist novels and plays were given equal consideration alongside Shakespeare, opera and ballet. The Cities of Culture pursue an egalitarian approach to art and culture, but we want to discover whether this egalitarian influence has reached upstream to the communities on our route.
Annie: What do you hope this project will achieve?
Bob: I am hoping that we will come back with a sense of what is going on out there, and demonstrate that a Yorkshire tea room décor is as culturally valuable as a National Trust stately home.
by Bob Gaunt
Annie Harrison combines her art practice with her work in public health research. We spoke in her garden overlooking the Rochdale canal.
Bob: Tell us why you want to walk to Hull?
Annie: My art work is often about places that have meaning because of human connection. Since Bob and I moved to Mytholmroyd, we have walked a lot in the local area, exploring the remnants of the past in the landscape. A few years ago we walked the South Pennine canal ring which took us along the Rochdale canal to Manchester, then on the Ashton canal to Huddersfield, the Huddersfield Narrow to Brighouse and the Calder and Hebble and the Rochdale Canal back to our home. I got fascinated with the idea of walking from city to city. People walk for leisure these days, but my family history includes a story of a man who was given the day off work to tell his family about the birth if his child. He walked 20 miles to tell his brother, then the two of them walked another 20 miles to tell their parents and then he walked another 10 miles home. Walking used to be a normal, essential way to get to places. But when Will Self walked from LA airport to LA a few years ago, he wrote that he was probably the only person to have ever done it.
When I set up Mytholmroyd Arts in 2015 with a group of local residents, we decided on the strap-line 'Village of Culture', because Mytholmroyd is half-way between Hull and Liverpool, two of the UK Cities of Culture. So then Bob and I thought, why not walk between Hull and Liverpool, connecting them to Mytholmroyd by the act of walking along the river and canal systems, and embodying walking as an artistic practice. And that's how 'Ebb and Flow' was born.
Bob: Do you see the walk itself as a piece of art?
Annie: Yes, for me it is a type of performance - I will approach it in that light - trying to be in the present and responding to the experience. I'll be documenting through photographs and drawing, but the real art is the walk, drawing a line with my footsteps across the country.