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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Wednesday, May 02, 2007
    In the city of mythic promise

    A lunch hour well spent on the course Liverpool and the Avant-Garde: From Modern to Contemporary at the Tate. The more that Robert Knifton spoke the more I got the impression that the psychogeographical impulse was a major factor in his curation of the exhibition: the way he noted that Liverpool, even in loss, was perceived as 'A world city in mythic terms'; the amusing anecdote about Ginsberg being in the habit of calling various other cities 'The Centre of the Creative Universe' - like Milwaukee - followed by the telling observation that with Liverpool the epithet stuck; his use of Situationist quotes to illuminate various artists' interactions with Liverpool: 'Under the street, the beach'; and the way in which he meditated on the process by which a socially peripheral place becomes symbolically central - how Liverpool has been such a force for creativity precisely because it is, at various levels, on the edge.

    Before the end of his fascinating lecture he made it plain that he hoped that in the exhibition he had created a way by which those attending it would be able to use it as a drift, a derive, through the city itself, conscious of how the very fabric of the city has been inscribed by artists, often outsiders who have brought new perspectives to the place. Centre of the Creative Universe: Liverpool and the Avant-Garde, Knifton says, consciously presents 'a revisionist view of Liverpool' - not constrained by the usual histories and nostalgias about the place, but a very different engagement with the city's broader and longer cultural heritage.

    On psychogeography, I was left with the image in my mind (because it spent the first ten minutes of the lecture on the screen) of an Henri Cartier-Bresson photograph of people walking through a semi-derelict district of Liverpool in 1962. Partially thinking that 'post-war reconstruction' had barely begun here even by the year I was born, partially wondering where precisely that picture was taken, and how fascinating it would be to stand in the same spot today, as Cartier-Bresson did then, to see how it had changed. Because one of the best things which Knifton noted (also a strong theme in Stuart Maconie's book) is that these times are far better times for the old cities of the North. The old north-south 'brain-drain' is these days being reversed, and people are drifting back out of London to places like ours: end-of-the-line places "with only the Irish Sea beyond" ... places of mythic promise.