Mersey beats

The common image of Liverpool is of a city steeped in nostalgia, the poor neighbour of Manchester. But in reality, times have changed, discovers Liz Farrelly

What do you know about Liverpool, apart from the Beatles and Brookside? You could say it’s a city with a reputation, and not an altogether glowing one. But maybe this is about to change, as Liverpool is a city in flux. I spoke to three protagonists of Liverpool’s creative scene; Eddie Berg, the Director of Foundation for Art and Creative Technology (FACT), Miles Falkingham, one of the pair of brothers who run Shed and Urban Splash, and Mike Dorrian, a founding partner of graphic consultancy Nonconform. All three, with their organisations, have a good idea of what it is that makes Liverpool so special.

But first, some background. In September 1995, Liverpool’s dockers were praised as Europe’s best, by Lloyd’s List’s shipping journal, but in the same month, 500 were sacked for refusing to cross a picket line. The dockers were resisting the introduction of casual labour and sticking up for basic employment rights, to defend job security not just for themselves but for the next generation of dock workers. As their literature says, “the struggle continues”, but thanks to a virtual news blackout, the issues remain unreported.

Derek Hatton and Militant may be long gone from the council chamber – he’s now a PR consultant – but the media tends to keep Liverpool at arm’s-length. Compared to the levels of urban regeneration which other northern post-industrial cities have achieved, Liverpool is no

Government-sanctioned success story. While Manchester is enjoying a palpable renaissance – witness the regeneration of Castlefields, its efficient tram system, new concert hall, thriving night life and an Oliver Peyton eaterie – Liverpool’s change in fortune is harder to pin down.

Next year, the Merseyside Development Corporation closes its doors with little to show for the millions of pounds of European money it has spent. The redeveloped Albert Dock houses the Tate of the North, which is an undoubted success, but the retail and office space around it is either peddling the worst tourist tat or lying empty. But it’s not all gloom. Against the odds Liverpool is changing – and for the better.

While the dockers march and the councillors scratch their heads, the city is buzzing. Cream, the country’s largest and hippest nightclub, which packs in 2800 punters every Saturday night and sells up to half a million copies of its compilation CDs, inhabits a network of refurbished warehouses in the so-called Creative Industries Quarter. Video Positive, the art world’s most respected video-arts festival, is staged biannually across the city’s numerous gallery spaces. Then there’s video-game publisher, Psygnosis, housed in the shiny white Wavertree Technology Park, which was the first European company to produce a title for the PlayStation which sold so well that Sony bought the company. Where there was one “designer” bar back in 1991, there are now almost 20. Need I say more? I ventured up north on the newly privatised train service, now part of the Virgin empire, to investigate…>

Mike Dorrian

Mike Dorrian is one of those authentic Liverpudlians who supports Everton, and being born and bred, he didn’t see why he should have to leave in order to pursue a career. After studying graphic design at Liverpool’s John Moores University, with all his classmates jetting off to London, Dorrian decided to brazen it out and set up Nonconform with partner Andy Weatherstone.

From the humblest of beginnings designing club flyers, their company has grown to employ five full-time designers, with clients ranging from the Liverpool Institute for

Performing Arts (don’t call it Paul McCartney’s fame school), to advertising agency Lowe Howard Spink. Recounting a quote from fellow clubland designer, George Georgiou, on the power of the flyer, “…one club flyer may be seen by 10 000 people”, Dorrian pinpoints

Nonconform’s work for Liverpool club Voodoo as central to its subsequent success.

Having strong links with the dance music scene led to record sleeve commissions from local label 3-Beat Music, and to an idea for a book about flyers, Highflyers, which Dorrian designed. Since its publication by Booth-Clibborn Editions back in 1995, the initial print run has sold out, and it’s been re-issued as a paperback.

Nonconform realised it had to diversify, so it targeted Liverpool’s flourishing community of independent theatre groups, presenting its flyer designs as proof that the duo could be creative on a tight budget. Consequently, it landed the prestigious Everyman Theatre as another client.

“A lot of students are staying in Liverpool now and getting young business grants, whether they’re craftworkers, illustrators, or designers. They can undercut our fees and take away our bread and butter work, the flyers and theatre posters. Six months ago, Jon Barraclough, who was one of our tutors, joined us, and has really made us grow up. He presents Nonconform as a formidable design company, and suddenly we’ve got loads of corporate work.” Much of that work has come via Liverpool’s John Moores University, which wields significant power within the city, and as Dorrian puts it, “has fingers in different pies. It’s part of a big business network.

“The mood is getting better. It used to be that when you tried to stretch boundaries you got attacked, and it being such a small community, you’d hear the criticisms. If your work was raw and simple it wasn’t liked. Now most of our jobs come from outside Liverpool.” A recent commission from London ad agency Lowe Howard Spink, for posters and print ads on the launch campaign of a new beer, came via a flyer they’d designed for a friend’s club, which was published in Highflyers.

Being witness to much home-grown cynicism, and well-aware that in the north west, Liverpool will always be overshadowed by its economically stronger neighbour Manchester, Dorrian is perhaps more reticent than most to shout about progress. But as his experience proves, geography is no hindrance to success. And, as another generation of designers witnesses his fortune, the message can only spread.

Eddie Berg

Eddie Berg is an art-world entrepreneur, who has helped put his city on the map. Back in 1988 he set up Moviola, to work with artists who were exploring new technology, principally video and computer-generated imagery, with the aim of creating “context” for this new genre. Originally involved with the performing arts, Berg dreamt up the idea after an Open University course on Popular Culture made him recognise that there was a new generation of artists who were hostile to the traditional gallery system and desperately in need of spaces to show their work in.

The first Video Positive was staged in 1989. Some pieces were housed at the newly opened Tate Gallery, which Berg describes as “crucial” for earning the event instant kudos. This year saw the festival stretched to Manchester, housed in 12 venues – from the relaunched Open Eye Gallery to the Oratory of Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral. It showed the work of 200 artists, supported by more than 30 sponsors, with graphics by Shed and a party at Cream.

Berg is adamant about the role the city has played in this success. “Video Positive couldn’t happen anywhere else. Liverpool has the Tate and a number of galleries which will collaborate with an agency like us. It couldn’t happen in London, it’s too dispersed and competitive. There was no tradition of video art in Liverpool to upset, but there is an acceptance of experimentation by funders and venues. There was a sense that what we were doing was suitably unusual and unconventional to make it worth having a go. Plus there’s a sense of common ownership, of wanting to be involved. Artists have come to live in Liverpool to work with us and create a very vibrant ecology and infrastructure of art and new technology in the city.”

The whole event has proved popular with both tourists and locals, and it’s not as esoteric as it might sound. On the opening night at the Blue Coat Gallery, Berg recalls “you definitely heard local voices”. It was, in fact, mobbed by the world and his wife, while on the first Saturday of the festival, another 650 visitors popped in for a look.

Video Positive is undoubtedly a profile raising success. Looking at the wider scene, Berg agrees that Liverpool is “a better place to be than two or three years ago. Urban Splash and all the bars just happened, without planning partnerships”.

“There is an energy about the city which you can’t define, it has an edge. It’s built on transience, people do something here, then leave. The planners don’t provide any solutions and sometimes just obstruct. We need a vigorous sense of the value of the city’s culture because there is a tendency towards nostalgia – just look at the whole Beatles industry – and that’s problematic for the future. There is a tension between the untapped cultural energy and the city. If the city tapped it, it could harm it. We need shared leadership, a shared vision.”

It is fitting that Berg’s final word is a plea for co-operation between public officials and private individuals. Perhaps that need to leave will become a thing of the past, and those who do stay will gain the recognition they deserve.

Video Positive 97: Escaping Gravity is on at various venues in Liverpool and Manchester until 18 May. For details, contact the Foundation for Art & Creative technology. Tel: 0151-709 2663

Miles Falkingham

Trained as a fine artist, Miles Falkingham and his architect brother Jonathan, set up Shed in 1990. When I first visited them in 1991 in their decidedly authentic warehouse studio they had just finished the Baa Bar. At around the same time, London developer Charterhouse Estates had spotted the potential of a near derelict area just off the main shopping drag, which it christened the Creative Industries Quarter, and which was home to Shed and the Baa Bar. But as the recession hit their grandiose plans bit the dust.

The Falkingham brothers, however, were a touch more pragmatic. When Tom Bloxham, who had recently opened the Liverpool Palace, a mixed retail and studio complex, commissioned them to add a suitable watering hole they played up the industrial cityscape by decking out the Baa Bar with salvaged factory lighting and motorway trishaws. The bar proved to be hugely popular and is packed every weekend.

It’s been suggested that the bar’s sheepish name refers to the Falkinghams being “woolly backs” – that is, not born and bred Liverpudlians. So what brought the brothers to the city? Jonathan was studying architecture at the university and Miles recalls: “We set up in Liverpool because there was a skill vacuum. Anyone who was good was leaving, so it was easier to make a space for yourself and get opportunities. Liverpool always had a healthy club and indie music scene (Shed was designing covers for proto-lads The Farm), but the Baa Bar was the first push towards the development of a ‘lifestyle’ industry.”

Never backwards in coming forward, the Falkinghams made an effort to get noticed. Miles is convinced that their success had a positive knock-on effect. “People in the city and graduating students see what others are doing and that there are reasons for staying. Are there enough clients in the city? No, not in the cultural sector, but there is a growing awareness of the value of design for business. Increasingly, our work is in the private sector. People are looking for an edge when expanding out of the region into national and global markets, whether they are solicitors, financial institutions or councils.”

Shed can offer its clients a wide range of skills thanks to the brothers’ diverse backgrounds. But beyond the fact that they are capable of designing graphics and buildings, they have developed a whole new set of skills. “Because of the experience gained from our self-generated projects we can offer a total trading concept and identity.”

Enter Urban Splash, “… a progressive property development company dedicated to the regeneration of derelict and neglected inner-city properties”, which caused the brothers to broaden their horizons. Again in partnership with Bloxham, the Falkinghams redeveloped Ducie House in Manchester. They decided to test the waters along the M62 because Manchester had more of a wealthy, 30-something, population crying out for new inner-city living spaces. Urban Splash provided loft apartments, studios, retailing and a nightclub. They brought the concept back to Liverpool last year with the Concert Square complex, and in the last few months, Modo, a space which combines eating, drinking, living, their own offices and an open-all-hours Kiosk, selling coffee, beer, papers and flowers.

“We wouldn’t have such diverse ‘sibling’ companies if we were based in London. Being in an environment where we see things that needed doing we are opportunists. You have to be in the Nineties. It’s private sector money and organisations that have been catalysts in the Creative Quarter. The point is the City Council could have done so much more. While it pays 80 000 for a strategy document which is gathering dust, we’re in the process of applying it. There’s an imbalance in the area of licensed retailing, so we opened the Kiosk, to get people in all week rather than just for a Friday and Saturday night free-for-all.”

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