Returning to the city you studied in reignites memories, impelling you to seek out the places you inhabited - the club now remade as luxury flats, the pub that is a scrubbed up version of its earlier self, and the council buildings that have become a hotel. Bergen Kunsthall Director Martin Clark’s return to Sheffield (he studied at Sheffield Hallam in the 1990’s) to curate the 2016 edition of Art Sheffield - ‘Up, Down, Top, Bottom, Strange and Charm’ - is underpinned by an intimate knowledge of the city’s industrial noise and post-industrial landscapes. Clark’s return is somewhat timely, with news stories spinning out the collapse of the UK’s steel industry, an ongoing recession, and a Labour leader depicted by the right wing press as a Socialist who would run the country to ruin.
Clark has formed his personal resonance with Sheffield into a festival responsive to the complex layers of place. He has created a model that can inhabit the city and then leave without a trace, focused solely on sound and moving image in arts venues (Bloc Projects, S1 and Site Gallery), and sites across the city forming one expanded show. Here, the literal root of ‘Up, Down, Top, Bottom, Strange and Charm’ reveals itself as the six variations of quarks - elementary particles and fundamental constituents of matter, pairings that make a larger form.
Walking between venues - from Park Hill’s Brutalist Link Pub or the workshops of Portland Works (where stainless steel was discovered), to the vast bunker that is Moore Street Substation - you are drawn into the city’s history. Park Hill was never the spectre for the city that the Hyde Park or Kelvin Flats estates were. Modelled on a Tuscan Hill village, it rolls down a hillside, folds in on itself and hides its true scale from the casual passerby. The Brutalist utopian vision of Ivor Smith and Jack Lynn has since been passed to Urban Splash who have stripped back one section to its core structure and remodelled it for new residents. The former Scottish Queen Pub has become home to S1 Gallery. The rest of the scheme remains a derelict building site, yet the Duke Street wing is currently being planned for redevelopment by S1 - plans for a space for production, an expanded gallery, archives and a sculpture park offer a bold vision that will foster ambition and culture regionally and internationally.
Within the Duke Street wing of Park Hill is the shell of the Link Pub, which houses Mark Fell’s new site specific work ‘Structural Solutions to The Question Of Being’ (2016). The work articulates the complexity of the situation that pitted the city, its council and its population in opposition to Thatcherite political ideology. Sheffield’s cultural independence was articulated through music and political dissent; the city was home to the evolution of electronic music from ‘Cabaret Voltaire’ to ‘Sheffield Bleep’, as well as the headquarters of the National Union of Mineworkers. Today, the Link Pub is a queasy mixture of shifting chromatic saturation and dereliction. Being there in daylight is reminiscent of those strange patterns of dormancy and action that formed daytime drinking prior to licensing reform. A pirate radio club broadcast by Solid State from 1992, found by Fell, is broadcast along with interviews with its protagonists. Documentation on a series of post-it notes traces the evolution of technology and its utilization beyond its intended purpose, demonstrating the ways in which both the Council (through the formation of affordable studios like Red Tape Studios) and venues and projects from The Leadmill to Warp, fostered independent creativity. On a table sits further documentation, including an infamous rhyming couplet from Peter Lilley (Secretary of State, Conservative Party Conference 1992) that illuminates the tension present in the recent past:
“There’s those who make up bogus claims / In half a dozen names / And councillors who draw the dole / To run left-wing campaigns / They never would be missed.”
At Site Gallery, Hannah Sawtell presents her new commission ‘@dividend_plus’, a newly created, digital ‘people’s currency’ for Sheffield which offers a proposition on the potential for activism to engage with new economies. The project runs as a live work throughout the exhibition, with digital work in the gallery shifting in response to the public’s external engagement with the currency. Anyone can access ‘@dividend_plus’ at http://dividend.plus, trade it and further its potential to exist beyond the exhibition. Cryptocurrencies (of which Bitcoin is perhaps best known) are decentralized - validated and authenticated by a network of users rather than an external market; at a point when bonds are regulated by the market this very independence has become subject to increased speculation. For Sawtell to bring these systems into the gallery is to create a space in which the mechanisms of economics directly engage viewers.
Within Site’s actual exhibition space you pass through a room in which a ceiling mounted strobe pulses, while in the main gallery a beat resonates from a sub bass speaker - objects both designed by Sawtell in collaboration with specialist manufactures. On a screen a live stream of ‘@dividend_plus’ coins trickle down the left half of a screen; while the other side switches between an elderly woman with her fists raised, ready to fight with her bare knuckles, and a tardigrade - an animal that can dehydrate, remain dormant for 30 years and then spring back into life. It is a potent symbol of the resilience needed at a time when economic policies continue to push austerity measures in ways that implicate us all.