Aug 21 2011: Consuming Passions: [shift] by Emerged at the Merrion Centre, Leeds (from Big Issue in the North, 2004)

I’m not sure this feature – commissioned as an attempt to look at a project in Leeds, bringing some rather esoteric contemporary art activities to a defiantly retail-focused environment during the early summer of 2004 – is of much particular historical value, or even especially well put together. It’s fairly typical of dozens of similar pieces, many churned out at very high speed to meet deadlines. Yet it’s a curiously revealing piece in other ways, primarily because it just goes to show how unreliable memory can sometimes be: I don’t recall Niki Russell or Reactor being at the Merrion, but as they launch their new show at Trade Gallery in a couple of weeks it’s interesting to realise our paths had crossed long before I quite knew who they were.

In fact, it was only while sorting through and scanning several box-files and folders of old press cuttings that many of the people I’d spoken to, or events I’d attended over the years, were found to have left any trace of themselves in the wider context of my own day to day life. In this case, I have fairly clear memories of visiting the Merrion, and spending the best part of an afternoon looking at work and chatting with the various artists involved (including the one who turns out to have been Mr Russell): but it’s intriguing to see how many of those met here cropped up in later exhibitions at Angel Row, and other contexts. Clearly, it’s a mistake to assume your own memory is any more authoritative in relation to the details of your own life than someone else’s research might be.

‘Chip Butties’ and ‘French Situationism’ are two phrases you don’t find yourself putting together every day. Yet it’s a combination that defines the ambitions of [shift], the typographically eccentric name given to a ‘process laboratory’ set up by the artists’ group Emerged in a disused unit at Leeds’ Merrion Shopping Centre.

Here, as organiser Lucy Gibson points out, “we really want to bridge the huge gap between contemporary art and the people of Leeds – especially those people who wouldn’t normally visit the city’s art galleries.”

The space itself is nondescript, a plywood enclosure in a far corner of the run-down indoor market where no fewer than 18 artists and 30 volunteers, organisers and assistants are setting out to research and make interventions in the life of the city centre, using this stall as a kind of base camp for their expeditions. People crowd around the tea-urn, books are available in a small ‘education centre’ and the general atmosphere is one of slightly chaotic optimism.

As for the work itself, whether it’s Juliana Capes’ ‘pavement astronomy’, sketching in chalk constellations made from the random patterns of chewing gum on the pavements around the city centre, or Gayle Chong Kwan’s guided walks through sensual memories of food and its evocative relationship with place, it’s all a far cry from the framed oils and watercolours that Gibson reckons are still, over a hundred years after the birth of Modern Art, what most people expect the art to look like when visiting a gallery.

“Even now, you’ll get into a cab and say you’re an artist and the first response is likely to be ‘what do you paint?’,” she says. “So you then have to try and explain exactly what it is that you do, which can be hard to define sometimes. But as you can see, we don’t really have very many walls here, so we can’t display traditional pictures in the way people might expect anyway.”

Danny Holcroft’s statement of his intention to follow an arcane series of chance  rules to lead himself to a particular, random spot each day, and make a piece of work there from whatever he finds, is represented by a few photographs, it’s true, and Third Person have been sticking up snatches of footage and text from the DVD they’re  compiling from interviews with members of the staff and public around the Merrion Centre. But, by and large. anyone turning up here hoping to see finished artworks on the walls will find themselves somewhat puzzled.

Instead, within [shift], the kind of work being produced can fall into the Martin Creed school of ‘so subtle it’s barely there at all’, which makes it a bold move to have moved so far beyond the safe confines of the gallery, where space and audience alike are far more predictable than they are here. Even Amy Todman’s relatively accessible three-dimensional collage takes place over time, so is never designed to become a completed work in any traditional sense.

As a quietly-spoken Dundee native, Todman doesn’t seem at all fazed by the response she’s been getting so far. “I’ve spent the first week feeling out the space, filling it, and then the second week editing it, so that the end product is really going to be the process of exploring this space rather than any particular stage of the work – though obviously, whenever you come, the work is there. I’m interested in the experience of the city as a jumble of associations, textures and materials, and in using my hands to mediate between those internal and external worlds.”

Niki Russell is equally happy to point out the inscrutable nature of his own pencilled squares, obsessive measurements and markings. “I’m not sure people know what it is I’m doing”, he suggests. “Sometimes they think it’s something official, like surveying or preparing the place for work to be done, other times, because of the repetitive nature of the activities, they just assume I’m not quite right in the head and keep walking. But when it works, people find that what I’m doing draws their attention to things like the floor, or some corner of the space, that they wouldn’t normally notice.”

For Lucy Gibson, whose own contribution comprises a poster drawing attention to the artificial, commercially drawn boundary of the ‘green zone’ used to price bus fares, there is a potentially political dimension to all this. “The work I’ve been interested in commissioning,” she says, “has in common the fact that it’s very much about changing the way we see the everyday things around us, highlighting and drawing attention in subtle ways to the environment we live in.”

Russell concurs: “People are usually so busy they tend to be switched off to the spaces they’re passing through, so hopefully I can heighten that awareness a bit,” he says.

For Philip Henderson, meanwhile, an artist intent on taking people out into the  streets to play enigmatic ‘pavement games’, one of which involves adopting quasi-strategic positions dictated by the random movements of a bounced ping-pong ball, “it’s all sort-of experimental. It’s about the unwritten rules, changing the dynamics of the ways people move in public space, which follow strange unspoken rules of their own that doing this can make participants more aware of.”

If the artists seem to know what they’re doing, quite what the Leeds public think of it all remains to be seen. Gibson has been pleased with the response so far, and even the most nonplussed observers of the actual content of the programme seem delighted to see the previously neglected and ‘orphaned’ space being occupied and used in a positive way.

Yet on leaving the space, it also becomes apparent that some subtle effects have been achieved. I catch myself looking at things much more closely than usual, wondering if they’re part of the ‘art’ or not. A collage of photographs of wigs in a shop window? The elaborate glass case occupied by props from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang out on the Merrion precinct? Those patterns of chalkmarks on a wall?

As one Leeds matron remarks tolerantly, on having the [shift] ethos explained to  her after accidentally wandering through the various displays and activities: “Well, it’s something a bit different, isn’t it?”

One Response to “Aug 21 2011: Consuming Passions: [shift] by Emerged at the Merrion Centre, Leeds (from Big Issue in the North, 2004)”

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