Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Cromwell signs up for civil liberties

In 1825 the most famous of all home secretaries issued a call for information to help catch a group of wanted criminals.
Robert Peel – founder of the police - offered a £100 reward for each conviction secured.
The full force of the state had been unleashed on a group of seafarers from Sunderland who dared to demonstrate for better pay and conditions.
A copy’s of Peel’s proclamation – designed to be posted on Weirside – is part of a thought-provoking new exhibition at the British Library.
Taking Liberties tells of a 900 year struggle for human rights in Britain.
The actual Magna Carta starts the show.
And we see other ancient documents like the Laws of the Forest.
Democracy campaigner Oliver Cromwell’s signature is clear to see on the death warrant of Charles I – along with 58 others as they spread the blame.
There’s a drawing of an Irish Home Rule protest from 1893 with a banner reading “Let Tories Quake”, and video from the 1990s depicting devolution in Scotland and Wales.
Visitors are given a wrist-band with a bar code which enables them to use interactive displays and vote on constitutional questions like the future of democracy.
"Citzen 148250 logged in" says the chilling Orwellian acknowledgment.
The message of this exhibition is that people have died for our rights – so we should use them.
The last wall carries a Thomas Paine quote from 1771: “Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must undergo the fatigue of supporting it.”
Taking Liberties: The struggle for Britain’s Freedoms and Rights is at The British Library, Euston Road, London, from October 31 2008 to March 1 2009. Opening hours 9.30am to 6pm, admission is free.

Sunday, 26 October 2008

The history of the photo opportunity

A hundred years ago loyalist photographers in Northern Ireland took pictures at a well-appointed UVF hospital.
The message was clear. We are ready for a bloody struggle against home rule.
So begins both this excellent photographic exhibition and the century of spin it documents.
It turns out that Shackelton - the polar explorer - was a Beckhamesque self-publicist who financed his trips to the frozen wastes with product placement.
Here he is, pictured, sitting on a big baked beans tin in the Antarctic, feeding Golden Syrup to penguins, and dressed head-to-toe in Burberry in 1910.
Using examples from Northern Ireland, the UK, and the United States, viewers are taken through the history of the PR picture.
Al Jolson supporting Coolidge, the United Fruit Company exaggerating communist influence in Guatemala, and an elephant signing a Hollywood contract.
By 1939 the image was enough to create the story on its own.
The American radio host who took a bull into a china shop, and hid a needle in a haystack was the master.
Throughout The Troubles all sides exploited the photo opportunity in the battle for hearts and minds.
The most chilling picture is from 1970. It shows two little boys who won a Belfast Telegraph competition to go on patrol in the city with the British army.
There they are - with two real squaddies - in their replica unifroms and carrying replica guns.
Like African boy soldiers on the streets of Britain. Collateral damage in a propaganda war.
A Century of Spin is at the Belfast Exposed gallery, Donegall Street, until November 28. Admission is free.

Monday, 6 October 2008

Personal, political, plenty of punch lines

Mid-life crises came mob-handed at comic Mark Steel.
Suddenly young people spoke another language, his own children needed constant looking after, his relationship with their mother collapsed, and his thirty year affair with the Socialist Workers Party ended in tears.
Like all good artists Steel used adversity for inspiration – turning his troubles into a book and a stand-up routine.
At Salford’s Lowry Centre on Sunday night he hit just the right note for an audience who – like him – were too old to rap but too young to lose the will to live just yet.
Steel’s highly personal show touched on everything from being banished to the sofa to his love of Test Match Special.
His impersonations of figures from Tony Benn, through Geoffrey Boycott, to a forgetful Ian Paisley were funny and well observed caricatures.
Probably the weakest part of the show was when Steel talked of his disenchantment with the disorganised organised left.
It will have confused the non-activists in the crowd.
And he didn’t have the heart to really go for his former comrades.
Many of the key players behind last month’s Convention of the Left were in the audience – no doubt desperate to read the nuances.
They will probably have liked the way his skit on the soul-destroying number of questions customers are asked while ordering a Subway sandwich, was used to introduce Marx’s theory of alienation.
The bravest moment was when Steel launched a blitz on educators for being boring.
Everyone in the house knew the formula for working out how many teachers and academics would be in an audience of lefties at the Lowry on a Sunday night. And we all knew the answer would be big.
Taking on your core audience – is that a sign of a mid-life crisis?
Mark Steel, Lowry centre, Salford - £14. Mark is on tour until Christmas.

Thursday, 2 October 2008

A photographer's tale of two cities

Photographer Jan Chlebik lives in Manchester and loves New York.
His exhibition of black and white pictures puts both cities in the same - slightly dreamy - world.
His aim is to make us think about the millions of normal things going on in the great buildings.
The 21 photos on show in Artland - Manchester's newest gallery - use light, focussing tricks, and natural mist to give us an unexpected view.
Manchester's gothic town hall looks great from these angles - a gem most citizens take for granted.
New York's moody riverscapes tell us that the Hudson is foggier than the Irwell.
And the motorways and jammed-in buildings bring home the similarities of city life.
Setting up the shot is a key skill - and Jan has climbed high and lay low to enhance the experience of the viewer.
The exhibition is well worth a look - a reminder that photography is more than a zillion identical snaps on Facebook or Myspace.
Manchester & New York is the first show at the Artland Gallery, Friends Meeting House, Bootle Street entrance, Manchester, from October 6 to December 13 2008. Opening times 11am to 4pm Monday to Friday, 1pm to 4pm Saturday.