Showing Your Age - Principles of BLISS #3

Our Customer Experience Manager gets on his soapbox. But he also takes a break to interview Clara Casian, a local visual artist who has uncovered a fascinating story that takes in Manchester's underground publishing houses, William Burroughs, Alan Moore, 'psychogeographies', and police raids in the 1970s, whilst throwing up interesting ideas on how we can utilise technology to unearth and navigate the forgotten stories of our city.

In my recent past I attended a conference on Manchester and innovative new technologies coming out of the city. I went along by myself, taking a morning away from BLISS, to immerse myself in new ideas and hopefully benefit from some lightbulb moments. After a few presentations and six cups of black coffee, I left with one nugget of knowledge—I am now officially old.

Picture the scene. A gentleman takes the stage and presents his product, soon to be implemented in certain areas with high footfall. Part of it is an app that makes retail offers available to those who download it. But the innovative parts are the interactive billboards that the app communicates with as you wander past. These billboards will automatically flash your Facebook profile, taking it instantly from your phone. It will also scour your social media activity and present suitable offers alongside your photo. It basically makes you the star of the very public billboard, alongside products it thinks you will like.

As someone who has visited the bright branding lights of Times Square and knows well the slightly less impressive luminescence of Piccadilly Circus, I found this terrifying.

We are then asked to put up our hands. Who found it exciting? Who found it creepy? I joined the latter, and unlike most social situations, I wasn’t in the minority. The response from the stage? “You’re showing your age. Millennials will love this.”

And he is right. Millennials, whatever the hell that means, will. Something like this will become hugely popular, driven as it is by sharp business acumen and understanding of the way we live today. And by demand from the young, which I am no longer a part of.

But let me quote words from famed scholar and thinker Don Draper that bring me some comfort now that I have been unceremoniously shunted onto the other side of the generation gap; “You're talking as if they're some fresh version of us. They're not. Young people don't know anything, especially that they're young.”

Yes, there are privacy concerns. Yes, it does raise questions about individuality and surveillance and what constitutes a public space, whether it is a shopping centre or a park. But my concern is that we are living in a time where a growing number of us are comforted by images of ourselves displayed everywhere, provided we feel we are getting a personalised service, that someone is listening, that someone knows us, that our face is worthy of the attention. 

And maybe this isn’t a bad thing. Perhaps in austere, chaotic times, seeing images of ourselves is the equivalent of the touching our face during conversations where we feel uncomfortable or awkward. Maybe we just want to be reminded that we are still there, and if technology can interact with our cities to remind us, then why not?

But let’s not forget that there is more to learn though, that ‘now’ and ‘me’ is a drop in the oceans that comprise ‘then’ and ‘us’. Thankfully, there is some work being done in this regard in the cultural sectors. I spoke to Daniel Jessop at Manchester Pride recently about the development of OUT!, a digital platform funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, that crowdsources and catalogues  histories of the LGBT community around this city. A very interesting idea and I hope they build on it over the years.

Because as well as our phones shouting to us about offers and discounts as we engage with our environment, they should also help us uncover history and heritage underneath the concrete. I would love BLISS to be involved in something like that one day.

One person who is doing this herself, but in a more analogue way, is Clara Casian. She has uncovered a fascinating history of independent publishers and bookshops, one of which is Paramount Books, round the corner from us at BLISS in the Northern Quarter. You should go visit it. It is a wonder, and one of the first Manchester buildings I ever stepped into and fell in love with.

Let’s not get too mired in digital and lose something essential. Printed books, as has been noted for some time now, are in danger in the digital age, as are publishing houses and bookshops. To paraphrase Heinrich Heine, who’s a bit like Don Draper but less fictional, those who digitize books will soon digitize people.

By the way, Clara is very wary of photos of herself online. You won’t find a picture of her easily on Google, so don’t expect it displayed in the Arndale Centre anytime soon either.


So Clara, who are you?

I am a visual artist based in Manchester, with a studio at Rogue. My practice encompasses various mediums such as film, installation, light, drawing and sculpture. At the moment I am researching alternative publishing and censorship, and looking at best ways to use archival content to reconstruct history and draw new narratives. 

Tell us about this film you’ve made

My film was commissioned by a Manchester-based organisation, The Exhibition Centre for the Life and Use of Books. I was invited to create a video in response to early zines published by Michael Butterworth prior to the founding of Savoy Books. 

Savoy Books is a local publishing house founded by Michael and David Britton. Before going into publishing Michael was a contributor to the speculative fiction magazine called ‘New Worlds’. The magazine was breaking boundaries in terms of format and language, shaping a new genre of fiction that was less about spaceships and the outer world and more about the inner world, the psyche, the effects of modernisation and the media landscape at the time. ‘New Worlds’ reached its peak in the '60’s through contributions by J.G. Ballard, Brian Aldiss, Michael Moorcock and Eduardo Paolozzi but it’s been going on since the 1930;s. Michael, on setting up Savoy Books, began publishing his own zine ‘Corridor’. My film was based on the second issue, ‘Corridor 2’,  published in 1971, because that was his first publication that felt the effects of censorship in Manchester due to the front cover illustration and Paul Buck’s insert which were regarded ‘sexist’. 

My film traces some of Michael’s and Savoy’s publishing history through personal stories, archival and found footage sewn together using an editing technique reminiscent of William Burroughs’ cut-ups, who himself was a contributor to ‘New Worlds’.

I was just about ask you ‘Why William Burroughs?’ because you’ve listed him as a big influence on your film-making style.

Well, he was a contributor to ‘New Worlds’ and he experimented with non-linear writing inspired by Brion Gyson’s cut-ups, another Beat poet at the time. He was also a strong influence on Michael Butterworth’s short fiction writing, along with Edgar Allan Poe. I used Burroughs’ cut-up technique and Corridor 2s unlikely combinations of text and image to inform the editing and image-making in the film, more as language in itself rather than in an illustrative or descriptive way.

You also mention Alan Moore as a contributor to the film. Is that *the* Alan Moore?

Well Alan Moore is a contributor to the Savoy Publications and a good friend of Michael Moorcock. As with Savoy Books, the works of Alan Moore such as ‘Lost Girls’ and ‘From Hell’ have also been affected by censorship, being branded obscene and seized by the police. At the same time I am interested in Alan Moore because he draws references to architecture and the effects of buildings on the psyche, ‘a psycho texture’, which is related with some of my own interests in psychogeography and mapping, using it to trace Savoy’s history and trajectory. 

Now speaking of psychogeographies, obviously BLISS are based in the Northern Quarter, which is right now full of burger joints and digital agencies. Through your research about the local area, what was the Northern Quarter like in the 1970's?

There was an effervescent scene of small press publishers very much tied into music, graphics and comics, influenced by the print technology which for the first time brought professional printing virtually into the bedroom. Within this, Savoy had a wide range of influences, with links to 1960’s new wave, underground filmmaking, beat poets and the comic strips and they simply published content they liked—neglected writers who otherwise wouldn’t be published. In terms of psychogeography, my project is also looking at the effects on the city through the lens of Savoy and the changes they went through during the raids throughout their publishing history. 

Could you explain why censorship was so prevalent in the 1970's in Manchester?

I think because of the cultural boom and the Hacienda there was a period of regeneration after the 1970s. But in terms of political systems, there was a greater sense of community so there were lot of individuals doing what they loved and doing that their own bubbles. James Anderton, chief constable of Greater Manchester from 1976 to 1991, was an upright Catholic and had a strong views of how things should run. He started his own war against the Savoy and they lost thousands of pounds of their stock. They went bankrupt as a result of this, just before they were due to publish a new work by William Burroughs. They’d just returned from a trip to America to finalise the deal with Burroughs. At the time, everything was internal, there were lots of things happening, and the political system had a hand in it. But I think there is a lot of inexplicable stuff too.

Tell me about Paramount Books. Why would someone visiting Manchester visit the bookshop too?

I came across Paramount Books when I was researching the film. I talked to different bookshop owners and publishers, recording their stories and recollections, trying to get a better insight into radical publishing in Manchester. Paramount Books houses lots of interesting publications with a mix of popular comics and small press. It reminded me of the Savoy bookshops and their mixture of high and low art and I tried to bring across this parallel into the short film.

Do you see any relationship between the zines of the 1970's, as content curated and self-published, and websites and Tumblr blogs of today?

I don’t think it’s a question of just format with zines, it is the liberty they offer in terms of experimentations with the content. Zines were so popular because it allowed that freedom of experimentation with content and because of the printing developments at the time. But you can treat a website as a zine if you wish to, one can consider the website as an exhibition space and play within those boundaries to see what works. 

You are trying to make your research into a film. How about a digital representation of your research? Imagine that? Can you talk me through what that could look like?

I think this project could benefit from an online curated space that reflects the physical nature of the publishing work that Savoy produced and allows various ways of navigating through content in order to restructure and construct your own narrative—a user-led mapping of archival and new content. The content itself includes unseen footage, extracts from email conversations with Savoy contributors and its supporters, interview sections, images and bits of writing that could be laid out according to threads and links encountered during the research phase. There is a vast amount of content that’s continuously growing as well so I will be using the online space to invite contributions and additions from the public, images, footage, any relevant info. A digital research playground.