BRYAN BIGGS (17/08/22)
PLEASE NOTE - Due to licensing issues surrounding the use of music in this episode, it is ONLY available via Spotify.

Hello and welcome, once again, to the OUTPUT podcast. I’m your host, Michael Lacey. If this is your first time listening, OUTPUT is an art gallery in Liverpool City Centre and we work exclusively with creatives who are from or based in the region. We use this podcast as a space to chat with the artists we exhibit and offer a deeper look into their practice. We’ve recently done exhibitions with Tommy Husband, Aline Costa, Ellie Hoskins, DREAMCHORD, Kiara Mohamed - some amazing projects that you can still explore on our website outputgallery.com and a lot of those names will be coming up as guests on the podcast soon.

But in a slight change from routine, today we’re talking to Bryan Biggs, a curator, writer, historian and artist who has had a long involvement with the arts in Liverpool through his role at the Bluecoat gallery, just down the road from OUTPUT on School Lane in Liverpool. It’s the oldest arts centre in the UK based in the oldest building in Liverpool. I met with Bryan a few weeks ago to ask him about the many projects he’s been involved in over the years, a lot of which have combined visual arts with music, so to really tell those stories properly we’ll have some music in this episode. If the device you’re listening to this on is signed into a paid Spotify account, you’ll hear the full songs, and free users will get 30 second samples I think. We also discuss the origins of the Bluecoat, how Liverpool’s art and music scenes have changed over the years, the importance of clubs like Eric’s, Yoko Ono’s first visit to Liverpool in the 60s and loads more. It’s quite a long episode this, with the music as well, so settle in!

Bryan - your role at Bluecoat currently is as director of Cultural Legacies, can you tell us a bit about the sort of work you’ve been doing?

Well we're doing quite a lot of work interrogating our history, because the Bluecoat - as you probably know, Michael - is the oldest building in the city centre. It goes back 300 years, originally a charity school, funded by the church, which was opposite, and supported mainly by merchants involved in the new, burgeoning dock that was just built down the road and become known as the Old Dock. It was the first wet dock in the world. That's really what powered Liverpool's growth in a sense, that and the trade it dealt with, which was mainly trade with the American colonies and Africa. Obviously, central to that was the slave trade. So I've always been interested in really getting to the bottom of how involved were those merchants in the slave trade who supported the school through subscriptions or donations, being trustees and so on. I knew it was extensive but we've been working with a PHD student called Michelle Girvan at the University of Liverpool, on a collaborative doctorate award, and she's come up with some quite remarkable statistics, drilling down into the figures that are there. There's a thing called the Slave Voyages Database, which gives you all the details, so we know exactly how many slave ships Bryan Blundell, who was the main benefactor of the school, him and his family sponsored over a 60 year period in the 18th Century. We know how many Africans they captured and we know how many died on the passage, so that information is really important. The last few years we've been working on that, using that evidence if you like, to work with a group of young people in Liverpool 8 at the Greenhouse Project, from very diverse backgrounds, who have connections through family to all parts of the world. Places that were touched by, or the result of, colonialism. We've been bringing together historical research with young peoples' lives and what are the impacts, the legacies, that started 30 years ago and are continuing today. Of course when Black Lives Matter happened in the middle of this project, it gave it a new urgency, that we need to address these issues, about the continuing racism, institutional racism. So it's political, but that doesn't mean there's not creativity within it. It's very artistic and we just let the young people do what they want. They came up with the idea for the programme which has resulted in an exhibition which has just finished and a series of events, live events for the public. It's something we're going to continue to investigate. This is such an iconic building and it is the remaining symbol of Liverpool's colonial history. If you look at the waterfront, that's much later, that's Victorian. The big buildings on the Pier Head, you can do so much with them, but I just think this building, the guys who funded it and prospered from the kids who went to the school here, they were heavily involved in the slave trade. So that's why we're doing it.

Even though that exhibition is finished now you can still engage with a lot of that content through the website and online, because it's ongoing work, can't you?

Yes, a lot of that material is now online, and we're adding to it. I think people, if they're interested, there's loads of stuff. But if you're an academic, there's actually really interesting primary research material there. As well, it's very important to say this, documentation of artists that have been doing this for a very long time. So the Bluecoat's first engagement, if you like, with artists that were interested in these colonial themes, goes back to 1985 with Keith Piper, Sonia Boyce and Eddie Chambers. These were artists that were at the forefront of a new generation of artists, mostly in their 20s, coming out of art school, trying to find a route through the art world, dealing with very difficult issues around identity, race and so on. We supported those artists early on, so it's important to remember that we have that history of working with those artists as well as the stuff we're doing now. It's an ongoing, unfolding story.

That's not just that the Bluecoat has been doing that work since the 80s, you personally have been engaged with that work haven't you, because you've been at the Bluecoat for how long..?

Oh, a long time! Even earlier... in the late 70s actually. I went to art school in Liverpool, came to art school from North London and I stayed on. I went straight in to working in the arts which was great, to get a job straight away, it wasn't the job I'm doing now, but it was an administrative job. I've been at the Bluecoat ever since. It's a very long time! I feel like if anyone knows the way, how important the building is to the city in the last 40 years or so, it's probably me because I've been involved in a lot of the changes we've made in the building. We've seen lots of artists and really great people over the years.

You've slightly answered this already but the first question I was going to ask you about Liverpool was when you came here and why, and why you've stayed so long?

Well I came to Liverpool to study at the art school, which then was on Hope Street, and it had an annexe called the Deaf School which a very popular band came out of there, an art school band, friends of mine. They rehearsed at the deaf school, studied there... it became John Moore's University but it was then Liverpool Polytechnic, it was the art department. I did fine art, after three years I finished and decided just to stay on. I got a job that Summer at the Bluecoat, so, why leave? But to answer your question of what made me stay... partly obviously because I really liked the job here, partly because I started a family, and I suppose overall because I just found the city hugely stimulating at every level. In terms of its architecture and all the cliches about Liverpool. At that time, 1972 I came, it was starting that slow decline. The slow decline had started before then but you were starting to see the real effects of that de-industrialisation. I don't want to romanticise how wonderful derelict docks are, but there was something quite visually really interesting, that you got these miles of docks that were dying and communities that were being broken up through the loss of jobs and industry. Out of that comes something, you start to ask questions. When did it all start? It goes back to the 18th Century in a sense, this was a colonial port and all of its success was down to trade with the rest of the world, it was a port city. And when the port stopped being a port, what future does it have? You get these real tensions, political tensions and tensions in the social fabric. The buildings themselves are falling down. For the artists, it was a really great place to work, not that I want that to be the only place an artist can work. It was very stimulating for me as someone interested in the visual, literature, and in music. All of those were very strong currents in Liverpool, even at a time when frankly the music was not great, in the early 70s. The Beatles had long left town and they were unique, there was nothing that could replace them. I think Liverpool was actually quite a way behind other cities at that time, who had much livelier scenes. But within, by the mid 70s, it starts to grow again. As I say, Deaf School was incredibly important for stimulating the local music scene, and then of course punk came along. Punk came along, but Eric's was there to filter it into something different. That's an important distinction to make, because I don't think Liverpool was really a punk city. Punk was, in my opinion, a fabrication. But it latched onto something, that there was a need for young people to reject the way popular music was going - prog rock, and things that were seen as overblown. People wanted to return to a more rootsy sort of music. That struck a chord in Liverpool but not necessarily through punk. There were punk bands, but a club like Eric's, always maintained it was not a punk club. I knew Roger, he set it up basically, and he said I'm just using punk, at the time, because that's where the energy is. If you run a club, you need to find the energy that's happening in music and make sure those people come to your club. The vehicle for that at the time was punk music and the scene that came out of that in Liverpool, which I wouldn't say was punk - bands like Echo and the Bunnymen and Teardrop Explodes, Big In Japan could be seen as quite punky. It developed into something quite different, which was partly the influence of deaf school, so there was like an art school sensibility. There was a lot of disaffected kids who couldn't get into or didn't want to go to the other clubs in town, because the clubs in town were pretty... not very nice places, unless you liked a particular type of, you know, aggressive culture. Eric's was a beacon for me, certainly, a venue to go and listen to the latest interesting bands. Roger absolutely had his finger on the pulse, and it was the only place you could hear good reggae, which for me was really important. By that time I was getting into roots reggae and getting interested in ska, and this morphed into roots reggae. You couldn't hear it anywhere live, very few places would do reggae. Roger would put that on, he'd put on interesting jazz nights, folk things, and of course, all the latest bands. So you could see The Clash and The Damned... I didn't see the Pistols, but they did play there once. Then all the bands that followed in their wake, a huge list of very important bands who all played at Eric's, just a little club down Matthew Street. Right opposite where the Cavern had been, so it was like lightning striking twice in a way. That's probably kept me here, I feel like Liverpool is quite separate from other places that I knew a bit about. I grew up on the edges of London and just felt it was quite parochial, where I was, growing up. Liverpool was at the centre of something but it wasn't recognised as being, it wasn't London.


You've talked about the importance of music in being what's attracted you and kept you in Liverpool and obviously that's factored into your work as a curator at the Bluecoat over the years - are there any specific projects where you’ve brought those two things together?

Yeah, I mean, the Bluecoat's had a long history with contemporary music, across all different types of genres. I edited a book with John Belchem a couple of years ago about Bluecoat being the first arts centre in the UK, which is true, it was formed in 1927 formally but before that, there were artists working in the building since 1907. Music was always very strong, Stravinsky was here in the 1930s. He didn't perform here, he dined here. There was a music culture, it was mainly around classical music but more experimental classical music. Then in the 60s you get Wendy Harp who went on to work with Bill Harp, her husband, in running the Black-E - she was the programmer in the late 60s, and put on some really great British jazz staff. Further on we had very good music programmers, people like Chris Lay who was from the Icicle Works, he was a music programmer here and put on a lot of great bands. Then Jayne Casey, who of course was in Big In Japan, and we're going to play that track, their eponymous first single... So there's always been an interesting strand of music. In that book I mentioned, we commissioned Roger Hill to write the chapter on music. It's a really brilliant chapter that does connect right back to the origins of the arts centre, the early days, full of music, right through to more contemporary stuff. But I've always been somebody who's arty, I trained as a visual artist and I've always been interested in that crossover between art and pop, art and rock music, going right back to the obvious people like the Beatles and the Stones who had members that had been to art school. There were several books written about the art school connection with pop, making the claims that it is what distinguishes it from American pop music, for instance. The art schools really had a huge impact in the 60s particularly, and the 70s, because punk sort of came out of art schools, shaping British pop. Whether it was the fashions they wore or the clever use of lyrics, all the different aspects that made British pop pop, if you think about The Who, it's unthinkable without thinking of Pop Art. So that's always been an interest of mine, so when I worked here, I wanted to link, do exhibitions - because I was originally the curator, I was the director of the gallery - do exhibitions that had a pop or rock element in them. That's what I've done, loads and loads of projects from the very early days right through to more recent things. The highlights would be something like Live From The Vinyl Junkyard, a series of commissions we did, really looking at the death of vinyl. We were told vinyl was dead because CDs were coming in, and within a couple of years that seemed to be true, nobody seemed to be being vinyl and CDs were everywhere. Digital culture, remix culture was coming in, and the whole way records were produced was changing. I knew that most of the artists I knew still liked to listen to vinyl, so I devised this thing called Live From The Vinyl Junkyard. We put it out as a commission opportunity and artists applied to do projects which would be gallery or performance based, bringing together those two things. The most famous of those would be Jeremy Deller's Acid Brass, which was 1997, and that was absolute genius - to find the best brass band in the world, which was based in Stockport, called the Williams Fairey. To basically score house music for brass band, an interpretation. They did a night of Acid House Anthems, which we actually promoted at LIPA [Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts] because our venue was too small, and it was just brilliant, it worked.

Was the thinking behind that about connecting contemporary working class culture with a more established one, or...?

Yeah, his view was that both brass band music and house music had origins in working class movements. Now I'm not entirely sure that's correct in terms of house music, but certainly a lot of people going to raves, it would be like Northern Soul in a sense. This escape that you just lost yourself in this transcendental music with the aid of a few drugs, and it was very big in places like Manchester and Liverpool. It was big everywhere, actually, but I think Jeremy slightly romanticised this idea of it being from the North. But it's a lovely idea and it did work as a concept, and the music is great. That led to other things. I knew Bill Drummond from art school, because Bill was in the same year as me at Liverpool art school. He dropped out after I think a year, to do his own thing. We kept in touch and one of his big hits was What Time Is Love? by The KLF, and that was one of the ones that Williams Fairey re-did as a brass band piece. And then, through that, Jeremy got to know Bill and they worked together on a further extension of that, it was called Fuck The Millenium, obviously in 2000. He remixed the remix of his original song, so it was great. I liked that. The original commission was the second part of the Vinyl Junkyard project, which was called Mixing It. It was very much about mixing music cultures. Jeremy's Acid Brass absolutely fitted the bill and it's an enduring piece, people still talk about that. But there was loads, like ten commissions on those two projects.


What can Liverpool offer to artists that other cities can’t?

Liverpool's always been a good place to work, in terms of- very conducive, I mentioned before what I was attracted to was just visually and socially it's a very stimulating city which I think is good for artists. Like many of the Northern post-industrial cities, it has good places that you can, if you're an artist group, you can set up really easily. I think Liverpool's been very good at that, although there's probably livelier scenes in other places, I would think. But certainly there have been moments were really interesting work was coming out of the studios. I'm thinking more in the 90s, early 90s particularly, when there were groups like Liverpool Artists Workshop up on Hope Street, The Bridewell, Arena was just getting going. There seemed to be a group of artists hitting on something really current, when you'd read all the art mags it was like, that's what these artists were doing.

Who were these artists?

Well, people like Pete Clarke who is still in this building, Dave Campbell who went on to form Common Culture, Paul Rooney was part of that scene, David Jacques who's still around doing stuff, Janet Hodgson was in Liverpool at that time doing really interesting work. As I say you'd open the art magazines and you can relate the discourse around contemporary art - re-using media images, quite a lot of what would become socially engaged practice, making work that aligned itself with particular struggles, whether it was feminism or black issues, and so on. There was that moment when it was very strong. I curated a series of three shows, because there was that much interesting work out, I couldn't do it in one show. Of course the gallery was a lot smaller then, probably about half the size it is now. So I did three shows called A Pool of Signs. I didn't really have to theorise too much about it, because I thought that would probably have put a lot of people off. The work was just very interesting and there was an immediacy around a lot of the work, a lot of media imagery, images from television or newspapers. This is pre-internet, pre-digital. But it was the beginnings of that media culture that was starting to dominate our lives, and ideas around simulacra and so on. These artists, I wouldn't say they were a cohesive group, far from it. But they were just at that moment, this is what a regional... what Glasgow's been good at, a good regional body of artists that are getting out there and doing things, the galleries are supporting them. And I suppose one of the problems with Liverpool is, where do you go next? It has been a bit of an issue - in Glasgow they seem to have a very good way of winning the Turner prize! Glasgow artists seem to be able to transcend the local, showing in international biennials and things like that. There are some Liverpool artists that are able to do that, really good artists like Imogen Stidworthy and Leo Fitzmaurice in the city now, and a very interesting younger generation coming through as well. But I think there have been times when, I'm not saying the ambition wasn't there, but I just think artists could have done better at being... they need to get out there more. The Bluecoat can only go so far. I've had this conversation with several artists - they say, well, I've done my one person show at Bluecoat, where do I go next? And you can't keep coming back to do the same show, so I think that is perhaps one of the things... it doesn't necessarily mean you'll go on to do something else somewhere else. And maybe that doesn't matter, maybe to artists, that's fine for them. I did feel that nobody out the city was looking in to see what interesting work was going on. That drain to London has always been a problem but I hope we've stemmed that. London is so expensive now to live, let alone work as an artist. Renting a studio, its very expensive. I'm encouraged to see there's been a lot more studio groups. They come and go, you know, they don't always last very long but that doesn't matter. It's great to see things happening on the Wirral and St Helens, places that aren't the centre. I think we'll see more of that, that's how I see it changing over the years. Just look at what's happening in Birkenhead or New Brighton. It's encouraging. Whether that can be maintained, eventually everything becomes gentrified and artists get moved on.

We’ve touched on this a little bit, but what have been the biggest changes you’ve seen in Liverpool’s art scene over the years?

I think a lot has changed in the time I've been here, which is a long period, just in terms of the galleries that we have. When I first came, there was the Bluecoat, and that was it. There was the Walker but not much in terms of an independent art gallery scene. What has been brilliant to see, obviously the Tate had a huge role in this. The Tate arriving gave credibility that Liverpool could be a place other galleries could start up. The Open Eye was already open, I think since 70s, really good photography gallery, still going down by the docks. Since then, actually I think FACT did start as an organisation before Tate. But they didn't become a gallery until after Tate opened. But the main thing was the Biennial, that was a huge endorsement in a sense. It was also down to James Moores philanthropy, he put the money up for the first few Biennials. But I think without the Tate being here that would have been more difficult, so I think they had a huge impact on Liverpool being taken seriously as an arts city. I think back, the bit that is maybe lacking in that ecology is possibly the ability to retain good students, graduates. There's been some really great studio groups over the years and still are, but perhaps where we're missing out a bit is that there's not, the Tate hasn't stimulated that so much. Studio groups have numerically probably grown over the years but I don't know. People say we've got the most galleries outside London, I'm not sure that's correct, perhaps somebody needs to do the maths and work it out. We've certainly got a lot, and that's good. But I think the point we were talking before, where do you go after you've done a show at Bluecoat or FACT or whatever? It is that next stage, it would be great to see more spaces here. We haven't got a commercial space. That's a real shame, but that's probably endemic in terms of British provinces. Very few cities, even Manchester can support a good contemporary gallery. It all gets filtered through London I think. That's a shame. Maybe there isn't a market, people just aren't interested in buying this stuff.

That implies that... you trained as an artist, and ended up working in a more organisational capacity as a curator, do you think if you'd pursued an art career rather than a curatorial career that you wouldn't have been able to spend all that time in Liverpool, you'd have had to go elsewhere?

If I wanted a career, probably! I'd probably have done what most people did in those days which was get some part-time teaching. Which you could then, I think those positions have pretty much dried up. There's not many now. But it was relatively easy to get some part-time teaching at a regional art school, on foundation or even on degree, and maintain your practice. But if I wanted to be successful I would have probably had to move. It's like music - before punk happened, you went to London to be successful. That's what I loved about punk - it de-centred the music industry. The Specials came out of Coventry, and Factory Records in Manchester, what was coming out of the Eric's scene in terms of local labels here, but I don't think it's ever really happened in art. The art has always been focused on London. As I say, Glasgow now is a rival, but it's certainly got credentials, and Liverpool has in terms of its galleries but I don't know if it does in terms of an art community. But going back to your question about what the Bluecoat's role is, how has it changed, I mean, it is fascinating. It's a unique place and I don't say that just because I work here. It is the oldest arts centre, and the research that I did for this book covered some very interesting things. Why was that? What was the motivation? It was a very small, bourgeois, middle-class group of arts enthusiasts that set it up, that happened to have some very interesting individual artists, like Roderick Bisson or Herbert Tyson Smith, in the 30s and 40s and even earlier than that. It was that enthusiasm, that we should do this for ourselves, and if the rest of Liverpool want to come, that's fine, but we're just going to crack on and do it. It's strength in those days and to a degree now, though we do less of it, is that multidisciplinary aspect. So from the beginning the Sandon Studios, the group that set up Bluecoat as an arts centre, was mainly visual arts but they do theatre, music, a very strong music group, they did all the different art forms and I think when it become formally an arts centre that continued and in the 60s was revived by people like Wendy Harp and more arts council funding that came in the 70s onwards meant we could do dance programmes, music programmes, literature programmes, literature has always been important, poetry in particular. I think it does still hold that position even though you don't see much music here and you don't see much live art. We were very strong on that in previous years. When you look at, FACT comes along and then the Biennial comes on, they're visual arts. I know they both do different things, FACT with a more digital work and now moving image work, and the Open Eye being photography, but they're still visual arts. Whereas here we can be a bit more fleet of foot, and we can go into contemporary dance, music events, some literature that links into the visual arts programme. So I suppose that's our continuing strength, that inter-disciplinarity, even though it goes up and down. Sometimes we're more inter-disciplinary that perhaps we'd like to be. But what else marks us out and makes us interesting for artists to work with us, is what I said before about symbolically, we are the oldest building in Liverpool City Centre. We carry that history of the Colonial past, which we try to interrogate, so that sense of place is very important. We couldn't be somewhere else. You could take Bluecoat and build it somewhere else, it wouldn't be the same. Because it is located where it is, between Liverpool One, this new super-commercial development and the old retail heart of Liverpool, it has that strange position. In terms of audience, which is really important to all of this, we're not a backwater. We'll get people just wandering in who've never been to a gallery before. I think it's something, one of our strengths, over the years. You'll know because you worked here before. We've tried to engage audiences in the way you interpret the exhibitions, the way we welcome people, all that sort of stuff. We do get, not patting ourselves on the back here, but we do get a lot of plaudits for that from people coming in for the first time - they really get it. For a contemporary arts centre, that's quite rewarding. I know that's the direction of travel for the arts council, it's all about being accessible and inclusive. But it doesn't always work in practice. You stumble upon things here. In the 70s it was much more ad hoc, anything could go on. Things where you thought - what's that doing in an arts centre? Yoga classes or weight watchers or comics fairs, or record fairs.

What's that quote, the village hall...?

It's a quote from Hans van der Heijden, who's the architect who did the big development here in 2008. He said, where the village hall meets the avant-garde. I still think that's a pretty good description, although I'm not sure what it is to be avant-garde anymore. We could have a debate about that, couldn't we!

You could definitely argue Bluecoat has its roots in the original avant-garde...

Yeah, well it has. It's a brilliant history, and quite - I wouldn't say it was planned. Yoko Ono performing here in 67, you don't plan that, it was just a guy who was teaching at the art school had seen her that Summer in London and said she's great, I want to bring her to Liverpool, and approached the Bluecoat and asked to rent the space. So I don't know why it was full, there was like, 400 people in our upstairs space coming to see a Fluxus performance, and enjoying it and laughing. Interestingly, if you read, she did an interview with the Daily Post or the Echo the day afterwards and they said how did it go? And she said well, the audience were great, they went along and totally enjoyed it. In a way that I wouldn't get in London where it was seen as more reverential, you didn't laugh at this stuff, it was deeply serious. But her smashing up a jug with a hammer and handing out bits of the ceramics and saying, come back in twenty years and we'll remake the jug, people laughed at it. It's funny, it was. Getting people to jump off ladders and pretend they could fly, simulating sex inside a big bag, they were funny things and the audience was having a great time. She thought it was good, she loved that. She's always had that appreciation of the city. Obviously John Lennon helped by talking about the city! But she's always been a friend of the Bluecoat and we're really grateful for her support over the years, great that she came back in 2008 and did another performance and we showed her work then.


With your very prolonged engagement with artists and cultural scenes in Liverpool, and also the very multi-disciplinary approach of the Bluecoat, that gives you a very bird's eye view over a lot of creativity happening in the region. Is there anything specific - I know painting is having a lot of enthusiasm for it in Liverpool at the moment - but is there anything specific you think Liverpool has always done very well, or something about the geographical or psycho-geographical layout of the city means that Liverpool is very good at producing any thing in particular?

Yeah... I would say, in terms of events that have happened at Bluecoat, where we've been able to capture that inter-disciplinary spark, coming from local artists, that's the distinctive thing. Something like Visual Stress, a really brilliant, very loose, anarchic group of artists and activists and all sorts of people. They did a few projects with us from the 80s onwards. Surely there were these anarchic performance groups out there but what was important about them was they had the sense of history that I talked about before, and particularly the colonial history. Keith Higgins, or Kif has he was known, who unfortunately died a few years ago, he was the mainstay of it. He'd come out of, his father ran the Caribbean centre and he used to run a group called Delado, an African dance and drumming group. He teamed up with a performance artist, an artist called Jonathan Swain, who was coming more from a situationist perspective. They put together this anti-colonial, post-colonial discourse with something a bit more spectacular and these performances, the first one they did here was called Death By Free Enterprise, which was quite a provocative title. It was to cleanse the Bluecoat of the taint of slavery, that's how they described it. Keith Piper had shown here before, we were aware of artists that were interrogating that history, decolonisation if you like. But they did it in a really imaginative way, which couldn't happen anywhere else, I don't think. They did things which we couldn't do now for health and safety reasons, they climbed all over the building, they had rock-climbers abseiling down the building. They had fireworks, they had a fake police car with sirens... things you can't really do! But it was really powerful. It was the week the Tate opened with, I think, quite a limp performance at the Tate, called something like The Invention Of Tradition with Gavin Bryars. It wasn't that interesting, but this was real, it was a group that had come from Rastafarianism, situationism, anarchism, and there were fashion people there, a punk band, mixing it all up. That melange, I think we can do that quite well in Liverpool. It might be a bit chaotic.

Is that the one we had video of? Is that video still online?

Yes. It was extraordinary, and on hardly any money. We didn't know what they were doing, we had no idea they were going to climb all over the building. We couldn't do those sorts of things now. But that spirit of, let's do something within a framework, but then we change the things that happen within it. So you think it's going to be a performance, and that'll be interesting, but it becomes much more of a political act. Groups like Visual Stress, Asian Voices Asian Lives, which are defunct but they did some really interesting work about British Asian Identity. Then you look at all the discourse happening now around Windrush and migration, immigration, you think - these groups were doing this in the 80s! I'd like to see more, it'd be great if that kind of collective work emerged again. Maybe it will, maybe I don't know about it, but I don't see it at the moment. But if you asked me what would be distinctively Liverpool that nobody else was producing, I'd say the space to allow that stuff to happen. We could talk about some really good painting going on at the moment, and that's not just now, it's people like Pete Clarke and others in that show who have been doing it for a long time. Painting has always been a strength.

On the subject of painting actually, I wanted to ask you about the Captain Beefheart exhibition at the Bluecoat.

Well, one of the things I discovered not long after I started here was that Captain Beefheart, the great American musician and total artist, because he painted as well, and wrote, and did all sorts of things. He had an exhibition here, and I think it was his first ever exhibition in 1972, so he was quite young, and he was known as then just a musician. But he'd been on The Old Grey Whistle Test, which was a popular music show on BBC, and it had some of his paintings in the studio. He said, I'd love to show these in England, and the director at the time, Lucy Cullen, she phoned up and said - well, we've got a gallery, you're coming to Liverpool on your next tour, we'll do a show. That's how it came about. He did the paintings reportedly the night before, or a couple of nights before, in a hotel in London, with just black paint. Someone said, what's your technique? And he said, it's like swishing an asses tail! That's what it was, it was these gestural, swishing black paint on the canvas. I didn't see the show, I came to Liverpool a bit later that year, but the fact that he'd exhibited here was always something, I thought, what a great thing. His first ever exhibition. In 2017 I worked with a guy called Chris McCabe, a Liverpool poet, and a few other people, a guy called Kyle Percy, and we put together a whole Beefheart weekend where we celebrated 45 years since he'd exhibited here. We did a conference and a gig at District and a walking tour of psychedelic Liverpool, loads of things, it was great. So that again added to that aura of this being a venue that is about interaction between art and pop. So Beefheart, big fan. He's part of the Bluecoat history.


You mentioned quite early in the interview that you initially trained as an artist before finding yourself in this role, do you still make art?

Yep, I still make art, I trained as a fine artist and when you've got a full-time job working in the arts its really hard to find time to do your own thing. So a few years ago I decided, I'm going to start doing drawings every day. I'm now in my tenth year, so by the end of this year, I'll have 3,652 drawings. Because there's two leap years. Yeah, if anybody wants to show that many drawings, I've got them all in shoeboxes at home. But I do them every day and I put them on Instagram, some of them.

What's the address?

It's called @ink_and_spit because that's what I use to make the drawings. I don't use much spit anymore. I use ink all the time. It's a good way, people say if you practice something every day for so many years you get really good at it. And I think I've got a lot better at it, I was always quite adept but I think i've learned new ways of picturing the world. Some of them are quite disturbing, because we live in a disturbing world. A lot of them are about Covid, Brexit, Trump, all that stuff, but not so much in a literal sense. More the general angst, the existential angst we all feel with the climate crisis and so on. I wouldn't say they're completely bleak, there's some optimism in there, but they are quite dark.

There's a bleak humour, I would say! You also have a fairly active side-hustle as a DJ?

Well I don't do so much, I've never trained so I don't claim to be any good. But I do have a very good record collection, a very eclectic one, it's all vinyl, and I just do it for friends basically, the odd gig now and again, mixing in anything really. I'm just totally obsessed with really great 45s in particular - going back to even early jazz stuff. But mostly it's 50s rock'n'roll, blues, dirty r'n'b stuff, then going through the whole gamut of the 60s and then into ska, rocksteady, through to two-tone and in between all the soul music and r'n'b and lots of reggae and house music. Anything you like! I'm just amazed there's so much good stuff out there, still coming out, good remixes happening, and you can get it on vinyl. So I'm out there, if anyone wants a gig!

We'll end the episode with a few of your choice floor-fillers but in the meantime thank you very much for joining us to chat today.

It's been a pleasure, Michael!

So before we play you out with a few of er, Bryan’s bangers, I wanted to let you know about the all new OUTPUT radio show on melodicdistraction.com - it is broadcast on the first Sunday of every month, so just one episode has gone out, and you can re-listen to that on melodicdistraction.com or our website outputgallery.com. It's a music focused, hour long show, exploring the area between art and music. The first episode features various bands whose members have exhibited at output alongside tracks selected by artists and myself, and we’ve got some really exciting plans for the coming months. So thank you to Bryan for chatting with us today, if you head to the bluecoats website thebluecoat.org.uk and into the section called LIBRARY, you can search the library for any of the projects you’ve heard us talk about today, things like Visual Stress, Yoko Ono, Acid Brass, and bring up some really interesting related content from their archive. Thanks to our supporters Bluecoat and FACT, and thank YOU for listening,. But how best to show our thanks? How about 20% off at the Kazimier Gardens bar? Just use the code RIBBIT RIBBIT, like a frog says, in tribute to the wonderful big sad hungover frog sculpture made by Ellie Hoskins that is currently sitting in the gallery as I record this. Just a really existentially terrified looking frog. If you’ve not seen it please look at it on the website. RIBBIT RIBBIT for 20% off at the Kazimier Gardens. Cheers, bye!