Today I arrived in Liverpool for the Libidinal Circuits conference, hosted by the Schools of the Arts, University of Liverpool, and the International Association of the Culture of Cities. After the registration and a short drinks reception, there were presentations by a variety of artists, held at the amazing FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology), one of which was a short 6-minute film titled ‘The Impossible Derive’.
Of course, after the work I’ve done over the last few months about Cold War counterculture and the derive as a means of reappropriating urban landscapes and narratives of urban interaction, I couldn’t resist going on a little (one hour) drift of my own. Inspired by the wonderful Fiona Anderson–who I’ve been re-reading today–I set out in the direction of the waterfront and took some pictures and videos of what I found.
After taking some photos of the waterfront, I planned to just wander back to my room, but within thirty seconds I found a man slack-lining. Drawn between two sets of railings–between one guard railing sectioning off a drop in the plaza level and the other holding people back from a small access canal–I couldn’t help but take a short film of this appropriation of otherwise intended space.
This guy’s sillhouette, moving erratically against the sun, captured my attention while focusing his activities on the space around him. The waterfront at Liverpool, from the point at George’s Pier to the Albert Docks, has been extensively regenerated and, interspersed with museums (including the Museum of Liverpool) and art galleries (the Tate and the Open Eye Gallery included), is no doubt targeted at tourists and other visitors to the city. Further to this, no doubt, it is intended as a social space for the city. And yet aside from this one man, who was actively subverting the intended purpose of the space, and myself, the waterfront was empty. Empty, despite a beautifully warm, dry, and sunny evening (if not a little windy). This put me in mind of William H. Whyte’s excellent Social Life of Small Urban Spaces (click here to see a copy hosted online) and what it takes to make a good urban plaza (or open space, as the waterfront is better described). Discussing the need for places to eat, places to sit, and places to socialise, Whyte details what it takes to make these spaces and places vibrant centres for the community. And yet Liverpool’s waterfront–at least this stretch of it–was empty. At eight thirty on a beautiful Wednesday evening in July, next to no one was there, and the one who was engaged in a process of reappropriation.
As a walked on, I looked for clues as to why this may be. Turning around from the slack-liner, I saw that he was playing in the shadow of the Open Eye Gallery which, just out of shot, had its contemporary architectural style disjunctured by the presence of an old Sail-and-Rope ship.
Surely, with the presence of these cultural sites, the question must be asked: why is the waterfront so empty? Perhaps the answer lies in the following picture:
A major section of the gallery itself is (however temporary) empty and un-used. But deeper than this, just about visible in the reflection from the glass, a fleet of cranes can be seen hanging over the Liverpool skyline. These signs of regeneration are missing something key: human presence and interaction. These places, these spaces, are being made, and yet no one is inhabiting them and making means in, around, and about them.
Just around the corner from the Open Eye Gallery, as I crossed the two four-lane roads and entered the ‘Commercial District’ of the city, I noticed that even car traffic was thin on the ground. What was it about this space, this place, and this part of Liverpool that meant it was being so under-used at this time of day? As I walked further into the Commercial District in the general direction of my room, I noticed that almost everywhere was closed. Passing closed-down high-end restaurants–stripped of all inside except the gleaming stainless steel kitchens inside–I felt a sense of disjointed temporality. These magnificent old buildings re-purposed, then stripped of that purpose and left to age again, but containing something that would not show the ravages of use and age.
This carried on, passing the odd open bar/restaurant as I passed, until I walked up outside my hotel. But just before I went inside, I heard the noise of skateboard wheels on smooth paving stones. Turning around the corner, I was thrilled to see three teenagers skating in front of what appeared to be an empty high rise office complex. I took a video of this second instance of the reappropriation of space, before realizing just what it was that these skaters were testing themselves against, which I couldn’t resist taking a picture of.
I’ve been thinking a lot about defensive architecture recently, and this second appropriation in an hour seemed too perfect not to document. The metal studs you see on the side of these uncomfortable marble seats are designed for one purpose only: to stop skateboards grinding along the sides. Of course, the argument could be made that they are there are a deterrent to homelessness, or to discourage people from sitting for too long, but I suggest that there aren’t enough, or in the right position, to come to this conclusion. But hopefully you can see from the photo, that in lieu of this, the skaters have taken to grinding along the tops of the seats instead.
This reappropriation of space–in front of an empty office high rise in the so called ‘Commercial District’ of the city–was too good to pass up on, but gave me the same kind of optimism I felt at witnessing the slack-lining that started this thought pattern off. It certainly went a long way to countering the state of dereliction–or at least uninhabited condition–of much of the Commercial District I saw. Indeed, as I’ve been writing this, I’ve been glancing out of my window. All I can see over the other rooms is another empty office building, set back off the road and away from the possibility of tourists seeing the contradiction of Liverpool’s regeneration. The cranes and new contemporary buildings that line the waterfront are held in stark contrast to the empty, 1960s and 70s buildings that run through the Commercial District just a few streets back from the waterfront. In much the same way as the cranes being barely visible in the picture of the empty gallery space, the emptiness and signs of use and age of much of the Commercial District are almost obscured by the presence of regeneration and the ostracism of regular city dwellers and users.