05 December 2012

Barcelona, my lovely

I decided to visit Barcelona on a whim. I had a few weeks off work, and I found a cheap ticket. I found what looked like fantastic and affordable accommodation on AirBnB.com. With AirBnB, you stay in someone's house, get to know them and get a cheaper place to stay. It's fantastic, and I totally recommend it, but definitely read reviews first and stay with someone who's verified. Take care of yourself.

I had been to Barcelona before, and I had already fallen in love with the city. I've wanted to go back ever since. I wish my Spanish was better now than it was then, but it's not. And everyone else's English is a million times better than it was!

Years ago, during the winter of 2004-2005, Craig and I went on a brilliant 3 week holiday to Barcelona. He wanted to show me the city where he'd studied, just before he came back to Atlanta and we got together.

We had the best time. We learned about the Spanish New Year's tradition Uvas de la Suerte, wherein you eat 12 grapes in the last 12 seconds of the old year. We were vegan, which was impossible, and we were hungry. We stayed in a truly bizarre flat. It was hard, too, for a lot of reasons, but mostly, it was amazing.

Because I'd already done a lot of the expensive tourist things in Barcelona last time I went, this time was more about getting to know the city and enjoying some of the more culinary pleasures of Barcelona, rather than focussing on the architectural and artistic aspects. It was actually really nice to just wander about, get lost in the Barri Gótic (the Gothic Quarter) and have a lot of really nice coffee.

But I didn't really feel like I was in Barcelona until the afternoon of my first day, when I wandered up to Passeig De Gracia, and saw the special tiles that pave that street, designed by Gaudí, and looked up to see Casa Mila, the undulating beast of a building that looms over the corner.

I love Barcelona's festive lights over all the city streets.

I happened across this little gem on Carrer d'Amargós. Amargós means 'bitter,' and this sign says something like, "Do not be a pedestrian long on this street, a street that is not bitter, but sweet.":
The Christmas markets were outside the Cathedral, which took my breath away. Last time I went to Barcelona, the Cathedral's facade was being renovated. I had no idea it was so stunning.

This used to be a convent and is now the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona (CCCB). However, there are loads of buildings in Barcelona that are just as pretty and seem to have no reason for it.

This square is now part of a library.

Sun setting over Placa del Rei.

Barcelona uses a 'B' as the typographic logo for the city. I like the way the B is played with to create an identity based on design and creativity for the city.

Breakfast one day was xocolat con churros. Super rich. Delicious and tasty, but entirely too much for one Nija.
I stayed with some lovely people: Pau, Susanna, Jack and Miki. I'll be honest, I was a little nervous at first. Short skinny woman. Travelling alone. Staying in someone's house. Things could get awkward at the very least, and positively dangerous at the most. But my nerves were for nothing. These people are among the best in Barcelona.They welcomed me and made me feel at home. We talked about the recent elections in Catalunya that seemed to give more power to secessionist parties. They all feel it's very complicated and they're not sure they want to be a separate country. They want to stay in the EU more than anything.

I was truly grateful that I'd stayed with them. If I'd been on my own, I would have felt like it was bad form to back to a hotel room at 7pm, even if I was tired and had been out walking all day. But because I was staying with these guys, I could head back and hang out with them. Time that might have been guiltily spent in a hotel room by myself watching rom-coms was, instead, time spent making new friends. They cook a big family meal every night and sit down to eat together. It was really lovely to spend the week with them, and I hope to visit them again soon! On my last night with them, I cooked dinner-- a huge pile of enchiladas. I really enjoyed being able to stay in a home environment.
Susanna and I gossiped for hours. I miss her a lot. We had a fantastic time chatting to each other about boys and friends and the city. One night, we sat out on the terrace, in the cold, drinking and singing songs while Marcos (their neighbour) played the ukelele. Miki played the kazoo. A lovely evening.Susanna and Miki: so in love.

Jack and Marcos singing "Hey ya!" Jack is a delightful human being. I miss him.

Miki and Pau shared some mató with me, a Catalan cheese that's eaten for dessert with honey. It's like ricotta, almost, crumbly, bright white and wet. It's really nice.

Their place is in the Raval, perfectly close to everything in the city. I found a little bar near them, called Iposa. The bartender is THE MOST CHARMING MAN IN THE WORLD. He grew up in France, lived in London for years and now lives in Barcelona, so his accent sparkles. He's super friendly and sweet and makes a killer cortado. I'm a little bit in love with him.

I had maybe one too many glasses of red wine at Iposa when I noticed the pretty squiggle shadows.

Manchego at Iposa. So flipping delicious, marinated in oil and dipped in black pepper.

I added yet another to my caganer collection! See more of my collection here. The funny thing is, I've been buying these little guys for years now, telling people how Catalans are obsessed with shit... but I'm the one with three caganers now, right? So... 
I had a fabulous holiday, meeting new people and sleeping late. Drinking coffee and chocolate and red wine and eating cheese. I love Barcelona for its beautiful buildings, for joyful architecture. I still wish my Spanish was better, but I have decided that's my first New Year's resolution: start taking Spanish classes and don't stop! I also wish I could learn Catalan, but that might be too ambitious. It's a beautiful language, with Xs and Ks and apostrophes. 
I can't wait to go back.

More pictures right here:
Barcelona November 2012

23 November 2012

Wet Plates

Last year, at the Manchester History Festival, I sat for a portrait by Tony Richards. He's this great photographer, who uses Victorian wet-plate photography processes. You might remember that first photograph had me looking weirdly dirty. I've visited his studio before, but I hadn't taken any more pictures until last weekend, when he asked me to come by for some Victorian picture play time.

He took this photo on a tiny tin plate, about the size of those slides you used to put in your slide projector.

Tony is such a lovely person. We've become friends since that first meeting, so my afternoon session was dotted with fun gossip and coffee and a nice long catch-up chat. Noisy neighbours and bad dates and work and how plastic floats in water.

He's so generous with his time and expensive photography chemicals, that he even taught me how to prepare and develop a wet-plate myself (it didn't go very well).

But here's how it should go:

You need a sheet of tin or glass sized for your camera, and you have to prepare each plate just before you take the photograph.

To prepare the plate, you go in a darkroom and pour collodion over the plate and let it dry until it's just a bit sticky. Then you place the plate in a silver nitrate bath for a few minutes – Tony had an egg timer for it. Then, you remove the plate and while it is still wet, you place it in your camera, leave the darkroom and take your shot. Once you've taken the photo, you have to go back to the darkroom and develop your photo (again, while your plate is still wet). Pour developer on the plate, wait about 15 seconds, wash the developer off with water, place the plate in a fixer bath to remove the excess silver, and then the plate goes into a circulating water bath until you're ready to dry the plate.

You don't have much time to fiddle around, so you have to have your shot set up and ready to snap before you prepare your plate– and Tony still hasn't entirely figured out how to save a shot if the light drastically changes while you're preparing your plate.

Because the plate has to be wet from preparation right through to development, you can't have a set of 20 plates ready to shoot. You can only have one. And if it doesn't come out right, you have to prepare another plate, take one shot, and develop that one. It's time-consuming. But it's also weirdly meditative. You get used to the rhythm. Prepare, shoot, develop. Lights off, red lights on. Stand still, move a bit, still again. It's hard to know when you should stop.

This was one of the first plates that Tony shot, on a glass quarter-plate.

And we both really liked it (even though my neck and collarbone look weirdly skinny). We then spent a few hours trying to recreate it. Didn't work. Between my twitching, the light changing, and my general inability to put my chin in the same place EVER AGAIN, we were never quite successful.
One of my favourite things about these glass-plate photos is that you end up with these transparent photographs. 

You can either paint the back black or just lay the plate on black card to make it look right. The tin plates are already opaque, so you don't have to worry about them. But I think tin offers fewer artistic opportunities, too. I know you can print photos onto clear sheets of acetate and transparencies more cheaply, but this just seems so much more interesting.

I can't tell what it is, but there is something seriously cool about this. And Tony really knows what he's doing. See his blog for more of his work, as well as more shots from my session.

Even when he's not taking pictures, Tony's studio is an exciting place. He's got wicked old cameras, the kind that have bellows and are made of dove-tailed wood. When you take the slide out of this beautiful old camera, you can see straight through it, to another beautiful old camera. Amazing.

I love the little racks he uses for the plates. Sometimes you can see through several layers of glass photographs, as if they were onion-skin-paper illustrations.

And he has even more cameras now than he did in this picture. It's getting a bit crowded in there. His newest camera can take a 12"x 18" photograph, I think, meaning it will take about £50 of silver nitrate just to prep the plate. Imagine getting the exposure time on that wrong! Correct me if I'm wrong on those figures, Tony! 

Tony doesn't love pictures of himself, but this is one I took of him last time, when he was making a mat for my first glass plate portrait.
If you're interested in the history of photography, or if you want a wet-plate portrait for yourself, you can't go wrong with Tony's expertise. The quality of his work is undeniable, and he's a great, friendly person, as well. He teaches wet-plate photography classes, and he does digital work, too. If you need an amazing portrait, I think you need this guy.

And hey, Tony: Thank you!

08 November 2012

Four More Years

On Tuesday night, I held an Election Party. It was a dorky, political party, mostly involving flipping between FOX, CNN & PBS, and touchy nerves. At least on my part. Very touchy nerves.

I found myself trying to explain the Electoral College to drunken friends who really just wanted to laugh at how weird everyone on FOX looks with their weirdly shiny (possibly inside-out) hair and upside-down mouths. Therefore, I ended up essentially explaining the Electoral College to no one. Evidence:

In the afternoon, as I tidied up and prepared for the party, I collected some of the American coins that have accumulated on our living room floor. "In God We Trust," they say.

And that night, around 1.30am (GMT), I found myself with my hands over my face, telling myself to trust Nate Silver, trust Nate Silver, when Romney was up on EC votes early in the night. Nate Silver called it for Obama, and he knows how to call it. In Nate Silver I Trust, I thought.

The night wore on, and of course, Nate Silver was right, and of course, Obama won, because America is NOT as broken as it sometimes feels. Yes, it is divided, yes, more than it has been in my lifetime. Four more years, though, of a president who does not have some totally nutty religion with magic undercrackers. Four more years of a president who understands the power of speaking well and with passion, who was once a community organiser. In a country where even the centre has shifted so far to the right, I cannot believe my bleeding eyes, four more years of moderation, intelligence, diplomacy and statesmanship.

At 6.30am, Obama stepped out to make his speech, and I cried. This night, this long night, spent with close friends and friends I barely know, made me realise once again, how much I miss home.

It's been more than four years since Craig and I started on our hopeful, exhausting journey. Four years ago, I wrote this post about Obama.

I remember back then, feeling like I should have been home, I should have been in Atlanta, to celebrate in my hometown, a town where Black people changed the country. I remember Craig and I being alone, on the other side of the world. We had no friends yet, not really. We had no one to share our nerves that night.

Four years later, this last Tuesday night, I missed home. I wished I could have voted in person, rather than with an overseas ballot. But I was lucky and very happy to have friends here who shared my nerves and stayed up with me, and celebrated with me. I am lucky to have people here who make me feel less alone when big things happen back home.

In the last week, two of my favourite things coincided: NIJAWEEN and the Manchester Science Festival.

NIJAWEEN is my birthday, which is on Halloween. I share my birthday with my mother. Same day, same month. Once in the 1st grade, a dimmer student asked me if we also shared the same year. I think that was the moment I first developed my cruel mocking stare. Poor girl.

And spare a thought, too, for my poor mother. 31 years ago, her birthday, and she's been in bedrest for 6 weeks. Her birthday, and she's carrying a 6 lb parasite who is fighting to get out. Her birthday, and she's having an epidural. Her birthday, and she can't feel anything in the lower half of her body. Eesh.

And all of that, just so I could hang out and drink and have a ridiculously good time with my friends from 5pm until 3am, and go to work the next day absolutely shattered, 31 years later!

My poor mother.

And this was my nearly effortless costume. It really does look like I've been slashed, right?

The next night, I went to see a Manchester Science Festival show. What Am I Worth, written by my friend Tuheen Huda, was all about organ transplantation. To tell the story, Tuheen used various elements that gave the performance amazing texture:

1. Audio clips of interviews with people who are either waiting for an organ, or donating one, or working in the field of organ donation.
2. 2 major characters. An unlucky-in-love transplant surgeon and a man who's wife is on dialysis and waiting for kidney.
3. A scene where the actors play organs, and demonstrate how a liver transplant rejection is something like being kicked out of a nightclub for wearing the wrong perfume.

The show touched on ethical issues, like how people in transplant waiting queues feel like they're competing for organs, by having to prove how sick they are as if they're in some sort of twisted X Factor scenario. The black market that sells questionably-procured organs to the highest bidder. The grief of a doctor who lost a patient during an operation. The grief of a husband who watches himself go from being his wife's husband and lover to being her carer and nurse.

It was an incredible show. And the discussion afterward really got me thinking.

Tuheen is South Asian, and we have always been able to joke about our nutty South Asian immigrant childhoods. It's part of what bonds us. During the discussion, he said that not only are South Asians at higher risk of needing organ transplants, due to higher risks of diabetes and heart disease, but also that South Asians are less likely to donate their organs. Of course, the best chance of an organ match lies within your ethnic group, so this means that while more South Asians need, fewer South Asians give creating a sobering mismatch of supply and need. More South Asians will die without an organ that could have saved their lives.

The day before I saw this show, I shared a birthday with my mother. If you've ever read any of my stories, you probably know that I can be pretty hard on her. We don't always get along very well, and she can be tough and she has a pretty cruel mocking stare. Yes. We are exactly the same.

But this night, watching this show, I was incredibly thankful for my tough, smart, rational, science-loving mother, who has not only always signed her organ donor card, but also always encouraged me and my sister to do so, as well. My fabulously unsentimental mother who has said many times that when she dies, she wants them to use EVERYTHING. And who takes care of herself well enough that when the time comes, a lot of her will be of use to other people. She will increase the South Asian pool of donated organs quite a lot on her own, and when you count her influence on me, the impact is even greater.

Thank you, Mom. I know sometimes the things that I love you for might seem like weird things. But there we are.

Also: an update to this very exciting post that was all about Twitter and Ian Sample!

Last Sunday, Ian Sample, the Guardian's Science writer, gave a talk at the Manchester Science Festival on his Royal Society Prize Shortlisted book Massive. Given that he and I had chatted for about the last year on Twitter, I thought I'd pop along to say hello in person. The talk was in the grand Reading Room of the John Rylands Library, which has a very rare example of secular stained glass. No angels and cherubim, just Shakespeare and Aquinas and Chaucer. Perfect location for a talk about the year's most exciting scientific breakthrough!

photo from: http://www.manchester.ac.uk/aboutus/news/display/?id=3692

I happened to be in the cafe when he was finished answering a long line of seriously hard questions. ("If the Higgs gives other particles mass, what gives the Higgs mass?" And so on.) He was going for a drink before he had to catch his train. I suggested some places he could go for a good ale before realising he meant to go have a drink by himself.

So, basically, Ian Sample and I had a hilarious chat over some great ale at Cask (one of my many favourite bars in Manchester). He liked my bike (Champion), and we got into a discussion about what I view as the heteronormative habit of calling all vehicles "she" and "her." Cars, planes, boats, all are referred in the feminine gender. To demonstrate my point, I made him read a really dirty ee cummings poem: she being brand new

We talked about the upcoming election. The craziness of the Electoral College. He wouldn't tell me what he'd studied at university. "Medical implants, it's boring," he said. I forgot to get him to insult me in my copy of Massive. That's a callback. I had a lot of fun talking with one of my favourite science writers (to be fair, I have quite a few). I think I just barely managed to not ask him to give me an internship on Science Weekly.

Then, some friends I was supposed to meet came by, and Ian left, and I finished the evening watching Moon in a very cold warehouse at the back of the Museum of Science and Industry, amongst friends.

It's been four years since I've lived away from home, but as you can see, it's been good lately. I could do with four more years.

ps: I've been kicking serious radio butt at BBC Radio 4. LOVE MY JOB.

30 October 2012

Heaton Park: Fire at Night!

A few weeks back, Aaron, a friend of mine who does crazy things like running up steps for charity, invited me to a 'fire garden' event at Heaton Park. It was called Heaton Sparks, because DO YOU GET IT? I'd heard a lot about Heaton Park, but never been because it's a short ride away on the tram. Now that I've written that down, it doesn't feel like a valid excuse. Anyway.

So, on Friday night, I met Aaron at a little pub in town, called the Port Street Beer House. It's the friendly hipster's wet dream, tiny and filled with great beers, charming bar staff. Though it is a little expensive, I find myself there fairly often, largely because you can trust it to not be filled with dirtbags (because it is a little expensive). And because the beer is FULL OF WONDER. In a lot of ways, the Port Street is the one thing I couldn't really find in Sydney. Though people tell me that's changed since 2008.

We met up with some of Aaron's friends at another pub, and wandered into the park. It was dark out, and because we were a little way from the city, the sky was brighter than usual. Aaron insisted the North Star was to the East. I told him that bright star was probably a planet. He said it was in the Big Dipper... I got out Google Sky Maps. It was Jupiter. My god, Jupiter was bright that in that dark night sky.

The park was so pretty. Lanterns flickered and sculptures flared and warmed the surprisingly cold night. I made a mental note to visit during the day, because though I couldn't see most of the park, I could tell it was huge and lovely.

This little grotto, while less spectacular, was very charming.

There were these metal tree sculptures everywhere, with burning branches. Stunning. 

There were a lot of fire sculptures set up at shorter heights, too, so you could warm your hands. It reminded me, strangely, of the nights Craig and I spent in New Orleans, that cold December after Katrina. We'd gone to help. To gut houses and distribute food. But once it got dark, we'd go back to the gutted, cold church where all the volunteers slept on the concrete foundations, because concrete didn't hold mold, and we'd sit in the parking lot, eating our MREs and warming our hands by a metal rubbish bin, mesmerised by the fire against the darkness, and wishing everything around us was different.

There were firedancers throughout the Heaton Park site, twirling flaming hula hoops, and suddenly I remembered Kristi Deville, a friend I've long lost touch with. She used to work at Javamonkey with me, and she was a firedancer. She once did a show for my birthday. And she's the one who started calling it NIJAWEEN... a tradition that has stayed with me all this time. I hope she's well. In fact, I'm going to try to get in touch with her again. Last I saw her, she'd just had a little baby named Neva.

At the end of the Heaton Sparks event, there was a little fireworks show, which started with the three firedancers shooting flaming arrows at a structure shaped like the National Trust Symbol, setting it alight. The National Trust don't own Heaton Park, they just held this event there, and the park is owned by Manchester City Council.

The fireworks show at the end was lovely and breathtaking, the way fireworks simply always are. The thing I especially loved about this one was that the moon hung in the background, outshining the whole show.

Also, there was a tiny little marching band. It made me laugh, because I went to a normal American high school, with an enormous marching band that won awards for its marching and its banding. But I suppose the little kids thought it was pretty awesome.


Then, Aaron and I headed off to a Halloween party. I think maybe because Halloween is my birthday, I got turned off fancy dress parties early. Or maybe it's because I've seen other people put so much money, time and effort into their costumes that I decided if I couldn't win Halloween, I didn't want to dress up at all.

I will never forget the guy who came as Teen Wolf to the Brickstore Pub's party. He rode in on a car. His mate drove him up, real slow, so he could surf in, just like Michael J Fox. Come on.

I can't beat that.

Or maybe it's because, growing up in Western culture, most of the film/TV characters and cultural icons I wanted to dress as were all white. I couldn't identify. And to be fair, other people couldn't identify me either. I once dressed as Margot Tenenbaum. I had the dress and the eyeliner. I had a little wig for the haircut, because my hair was probably a mohawk at the time. I did THE WHOLE THING.

But no one got it. RACISTS.

My most successful Halloween costume EVER was when I dressed like Storm. And that was awesome. But it required an amount of pleather that I simply do not own these days.

Therefore: I am not a big fan of fancy dress parties. Usually, I go as myself, and say my costume is my birthday. I know. It's disappointing.

This year, a friend (Mark, a different Mark) invited me along to a fancy dress party, which it turned out Aaron was going to, as well! I had contemplated, earlier in the week, not going, so I wouldn't have to think of a costume.

But I've been trying to embrace this whole single woman in the city thing. Single women go to parties, right? Even if they have to wear fake blood to do so?

I decided some fake blood and fake wound stickers would be enough. It was.

And then I promptly forgot to take any pictures. I know many people who have tried to convince to dress up for Halloween over the years will want to see it. Do not panic. I will be reprising this costume on proper Halloween, so get ready to see a very fake bloodied Nija!

28 October 2012

A woman on a wheel

Bicycles loom large in the history of women's liberation.

American suffragette Susan B Anthony said, "I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel...the picture of free, untrammelled womanhood. The bicycle has done more for the emancipation of women than anything else in the world."

And she ended up on a dollar coin, the first circulating U.S. coin with the portrait of an actual woman rather than an allegorical female figure such as 'Liberty.'

My grandmother was the first woman in her whole group of friends to learn how to ride a bike in 1930s Mumbai. My grandfather taught her how to ride, but he didn't know he'd spend the rest of his life with her yet.

For me, bicycling is a sort of new thing. Sydney's the town I properly learned to cycle in. My bike was gorgeous. A pinkish orange beach cruiser, with a coaster brake and a kickstand. Her name was Eleanoura, and she matched Sydney's sunny beachy lazy pace. When I remember riding my bike in Sydney, I remember watching jacaranda blossoms waft into the street and hot days and freewheeling fast down Erskineville Road. Riding through Redfern Park on warm nights.

I loved her. Sydney's terrible transport system made cycling the best way to get around town. And Craig being an avid cyclist and an excellent bike mechanic made it easy.

Since I've been in Manchester, I haven't really felt the need for a bike very often. The transit isn't great, but it's doable. It's expensive and often very slow, but now that I live right in the centre of town, I can walk most places with no problem.

But I missed cycling. I missed the exercise and the way a bike lets you go places you'd never walk to. I missed the feeling of freewheeling down a street, watching the leaves flutter by.

And I figured if I could learn the way to MediaCity, I'd save money on tram tickets.

So I bought Champion.

He's a single speed, super fast road bike. He's lighter than Eleanoura was, and he's pretty and the fact that I've decided he's a boy allows me to make all sorts of dirty innuendo-filled jokes that make men cough a bit. WHAT COULD POSSIBLY BE BETTER?

I've been taking him out on the weekends, going up the canal, zipping about town, and generally goofing around with my friend Cormac, who also just bought a bike recently.

But last weekend, Creative Tourist's Manchester Weekender included a bicycle tour of 1910s Manchester.

Avid readers of this blog will already know what a sucker I am for walking tours. Up, then, Brave Women, which has recently become a book, was one of my first walks around Manchester.  In that same post, I covered the Tales of the Manchester Dead walk. I've also done the Red Manchester and Underground Manchester walks, as well as the Ancoats Peeps and several Psychogeography walks. An Alan Turing walk I didn't document, because I thought I was going to make a podcast of it, but the recording was filled with wind and microphone problems. I've done the Jack the Ripper tour in London THREE TIMES. I've taken a tour of a clock tower, FFS.

Led by Emma Fox of Manchester Guided Tours, this bicycle tour started in town, went through Salford, over to Media City, through Trafford Park, and back into town. Keir, who used to be my MA supervisor, but is now a figure of no authority in my life and a friend, came with me, and between seeing new parts of town, learning new stuff, gorgeous weather and getting a bit of exercise, I think we could not have had a better day. AND THEN WE ATE LUNCH AT PANCHO'S. So it was the best day ever.

Because we were on bikes, I couldn't really take any notes, so my memory is a touch hazy. We stopped at this church to talk about WWI memorial in it, too. I think it might Salford Cathedral. Keir's the one holding my bike for me.

At Victoria Station, Emma showed us an out-of-the-way, unremarkable gate known as the "Gates of Hell," next to which is a memorial to the men who walked out those gates to war, and never came back.

Emma showed us various parts of the Manchester's canals that were enhanced or built during the 1910s. She showed us evidence of Manchester's rudimentary sewage system, involving horrifying thoughts like nightsoil (look it up) and Manchester's Midnight Mechanics (don't).

We stopped at Ordsall Hall, this amazing Tudor mansion, which is supposedly one of the most haunted places in the UK. They do spooky overnight stays. I might do one. We'll see.

The strange thing about Ordsall Hall, though, is that it feels like it's from another world. It's this gorgeous old building, plonked down right in the middle of one of the most deprived areas of Salford, which is a pretty deprived town overall. Salford is dirtier, poorer, more crime-ridden than Manchester, and the recession hurts more here.

But Ordsall Hall, with its wooden swan and swanling sculptures, seems to deny all of that. It's like a miracle. An oasis.

As we rode along the canal out to Media City, we also stopped to notice some public art. David Appleyard's Factory Girls are a cast iron and enamel tribute to the women who went into factory work to keep industry going while men were at war, and thereby likely did more to emancipate women and win the vote than the suffragettes ever managed, not for lack of trying. Too bad he didn't put them on bikes!

The ride back from Media City was a harrowing narrow trail along the Bridgewater Canal. I have never felt so stressed in my life. The path was about 2 feet wide at best, and branches and thorns reached out to scratch your face. If you avoided them, you'd land in the water. On your bike. Other riders had worn a dirt trail into the path, which was about 6" wide. The canal was constantly threatening to suck me in. I was seriously terrified.

It might have been the first time Emma took a bicycle tour out, because we got a bit lost on our way back into town. We wandered around Castlefield, trying to find our way back over horrible cobbled streets. Hopefully that won't happen next time!

It was a great way to spend a sunny Sunday, and I can't wait for the next bicycle tour of Manchester-- so long as it doesn't involve the Bridgewater Canal's narrow muddy trail, that is.

25 October 2012

The Return of Manfester!

In October 2011, at almost exactly the same time of year, I told you about how Manchester explodes into autumn with festivals. 

This year is no different. The Manchester Weekender was, as usual, absolutely brilliant. Creative Tourist really know what they're doing!

On Saturday, I decided to finally get my bike's extremely squealing brakes sorted out. While the Bicycle Boutique worked on it, I thought I'd catch an exhibit devoted to one of my ridiculous passions: Artists' Books! The Manchester Artists' Book Fair was right near my local bike shop, on Oxford Road. Ahh, Oxford Road. A regular haunt during my MA, it's a street I (thankfully) almost never have to ride on these days. When I first moved to Manchester, the BBC was still running a lot of its northern operations from the 70s modernist monstrosity on Oxford Road. I remember gazing at it wistfully as I walked into town from school, wishing I worked there. Of course, by the time I started working at the Beeb, these offices were moved to Media City UK, over in Salford. Much prettier buildings!

One of the first stalls I saw was Big Jump Press, run by a lovely Sarah Bryant. She's a recent immigrant to the UK, by way of Alabama and upstate NY, so we had a lot to chat about. So much, in fact, that I forgot to take any pictures! But, if you look at her blog, she has many images of her work. Beautiful, delicate pieces.

This book by Mellie Lane blew me away. I love how the purple gets darker as you look further 'back' into the city. I love the precision of the cuts. I wanted to buy it, but I cannot spend £30 on a piece of art that I don't even have the bedroom space to display.

This flagged book, by Heather Prescott, did something that I think is truly amazing. It is an artists' book that is filled with meaning and politics, both personal and public. It examines how the word 'cuts' is used, in so many areas, and how nearly all of those usages hurt. From self-harm to austerity, cuts undercut our lives. (See what I did there?) Simultaneously, as a physical object, it is nearly impossible to touch without getting a papercut, and so it manifests its meaning on your fingertips. And the book also makes it clear that cuts caused by austerity do not currently have a treatment plan in place. 

And this book drew me in through its sheer physical cleverness. Created by Gemma Lacey, it's true brilliance is that this book is some sort of undercover mobile. To see this book's full form, it must be held up in the air.

It starts as a closed book, with some lovely ribbons. Nothing exceptional there.

You can see a yellow printed sun begin to break through the inky blue 'night' of the book. 

And then, once you fully open it, the covers can be tied together, and the pages form this 3 dimensional sculpture of night and day!

I still had time before I could pick up my bike, so I walked up to The Cornerhouse, which was another Weekender venue. On the way, I noticed a huge gap in the buildings that line Oxford Road. It's strange to see, because Oxford Road is probably the most developed road in Manchester, so a gap in the view, a place for the sun to get through... is unnerving. It turns out the BBC Manchester building was nearly gone. I was a bit sad about it, but I'm glad I'm working at the Beeb anyway now!

At the Cornerhouse, I intended to go to the Sketch-O-Matic, look at some artwork, and call it a day. What, in heaven's name, you ask, is a Sketch-O-Matic? Well, dear reader, the Sketch-O-Matic is a delightful take on the classic photobooth. With the Sketch-O-Matic, you sit in a booth, facing a one-way mirror, drop a £1 coin in the slot, and an artist on the other side draws your portrait in 5 minutes! 

Some of the portraitists did sketches and some did 'poem portraits.' I found the experience a little bizarre. Thanks to a fear of being vain and actually hating the way my face looks, I have not sat in front of a mirror for a full 5 minutes in about 17 years, I would roughly guess.
I kept looking around, and though I managed to not get on Twitter for the entire time, I couldn't help taking a photo of the coin slot and the indicator above the mirror.  

And this is the portrait I got! 

I absolutely love it. I think the reason it looks like someone else is 'portrait-bombing' me is that I was really fidgety and probably started out looking at the side of the booth. What I love, though, is that it reminds of how I looked when I had a mohawk-- so it's like a portrait of my past and my present. Also, the artist caught the moment when I was taking the photograph, so you can see my fingers splayed over my rectangular phone. 

My only wish? That the Sketch-O-Matic had a publicly available roster of artists, so I could know to whom to attribute this work of art!
I meant to just go home after that, but a friend came by and offered me a ticket to a Q&A with artist David Shrigley. I didn't know anything about Shrigley's work, except that he had an exhibit on at the Cornerhouse. I figured, "Free ticket!"I'm really glad I went along. David Shrigley is one of those very lucky characters who manages to make a living being an artist, while not having to bend his style to advertising, but rather gets to bend advertising to his style. He does goofy drawings with text, and generally his work seems rather pointless. 

But what I really liked about his talk was that he didn't take the "I get paid to do stupid childish drawings all day, it's the best! I can't believe people pay me to do dumb drawings!" route. If he had taken that route, I would probably take his drawings about as seriously as he did and think he was an overpaid wank who is taking the art out of art.
But I don't think that. Because he does take his work seriously. Yes, they are little cartoons. But they say something. He said he spends every day working at his drawings. That they look little throwaway doodles, but he throws out a bin bag of them a day. He works. Hard. It looks easy. But looks mean nothing. And he also doesn't take his work too seriously. I think he would acknowledge that they are goofy drawings. But goofy does not mean unimportant. I really enjoyed his talk, and I know I'll recognise his work in the future... and be excited about it! After his talk, I did have to rush to the bike shop to get Champion before closing time. Happily, his brake pads have been changed and he no longer screams at me every time I tell him to slow down, take it easy, stop now, we have all night.

A great day, well spent, and errands done, too. I might just be ok with the single life in Manchester, after all!