Adios Upper Space

2017 January 30
by dickdickerydick

An Interview With Former Gallery Art Director, Barney Francis

Can you tell us a bit about Sketch City, how it has evolved over the past couple of years and about your particular role within the collective?

Sketch City was set up just over 3 years ago by my good friend and comrade Jon Winstanley as a live art and music event at the Dry Bar in the city centre. With a distinct lack of space available for artists to meet and collaborate on work in the city centre, Sketch City transformed the venue into an interactive canvas where artists and the public could get involved and unleash their creative ideas onto the tables, walls and anything else we could find! Our ethos was and still is all about inclusivity to the arts, we had no age restrictions on the door so young people could come down and get busy with their local nocturnal heroes and the public could get creative with some chilled music on a sunday tip.

My role in Sketch at first was as a regular artist, i would turn up and paint as much as possible and over time as the event grew, i became more directly involved with the setup and management of projects that came in off the back of the event.  My role changed again to became project manager of the build and construction of the gallery space, so with little experience but lots of ideas we saw the gallery as the next logical step. Once we opened the space my main purpose was to curate shows and develop community projects alongside Jon and try and source work for the artists we had met along our path and help develop their skill sets and become self supporting through their practises.

My main priority was to curate and manage the gallery space which meant i got to talk and meet with lots of artists and create shows that we thought Manchester needed to see and to try and raise awareness to the validity of street art and offer people the chance to view works that weren’t created in 5 minutes outside illegally but rather works that artists had created in a safe, legal environment where time and opportunity were their allies instead of being against them. This allowed artists to show the scope and depth of their talent and style and hopefully help to change the publics perception of the art form.

What prompted the decision to set up Upper Space in 2007 and why at the location on Newton Street?

Sketch City acted as a forum for artists to meet up and share ideas and it also attracted community groups and youth centres who were looking for artists to help educate young people and create exciting projects to encourage creativity with young people, especially with those who were not suitable to regular corriculum education – not surprising really since school doesn’t exactly inspire a lot of young people. Parallel to this, other organisations and companies looking for artists were also getting in touch and this prompted us to try and get ourselves organised. In 2007 we were looking for a somewhere to use as a base for our skirmishes into the art world and we found the warehouse that was later to become Upper Space. So in October of that year we set about building our treetop retreat and after 4 months of hard labour – done mainly by ourselves, friends and a myriad of volunteers – who we are still grateful to this day, massive respects to them all, we opened in February 2008 with our Sketch City group show which featured many of the amazing artists we had met through previous Sketch City events and from other projects over the last couple of years.

We ended up with not only an office space but with a 2000 sq.ft. gallery space as well as we thought the next logical progression to our journey was to provide artists that we had met and other artists that inspired us with a space to promote their skills and try and counter act a lot of the negative connotations associated with graffiti art. Due to the present day semantics of the word ‘graffiti’, we chose to encompass this form of art under the umbrella of ‘Street art’ and explore it as one component of this exciting visual art movement. Where as graffiti is often a coded visual language between other graffiti writers and practitioners, street art allows for more open interpretation of the works and their is more tolerance and interest form the general public when considering the end result.

As far as Newton street was concerned, our choice to build Upper Space there was one of practicality. A lot of people assume we get funding for our work and we had investment for the project but unfortunately that wasn’t the case. We were using our own money and the space we found at Newton Street was ridiculously cheap for the size. The flip side to the price was the condition of the place.

What was the space like when you first arrived and how was it transformed into a ‘social and artistic hub’?

‘If you build it, they will come….’ – Kostner, Legend.

I remember my first visit to the space with Jon and Ryan in July of 2007. It looked like the industrial revolution had got busy and then Marx had a word and it had made a swift exit. The space was originally used as a textile warehouse back in the day and there were a lot of remnants to it’s former purpose. However there were no Lights, no electrics, plugs or otherwise. The whole floor, all 4000 sq. ft. was open plan with a beetle juice approach to straight lines and structure. Brilliant we thought, lets get on it. Firstly we built the office space, with no prior experience with structural building we asked the oracle (google) how to partition walls – my father had been a carpenter so i had a basic grasp of woodwork and had studied the practice at college but we weren’t exactly up on the process. It took us a day to box in the first pillar so we could run the office walls off it and 3 hours to do the next one. Progress. After we had built the office we started on the walls for the gallery, dividing the space up in order to give us 2 flexible exhibition spaces, gallery 1 – the main room, and gallery 2 – a smaller adaptable gallery space.

The cafe was the next phase of the development of the space, Janey Riley and a huge number of friends and volunteers brought the Marbella Cafe to life after several months of work and we opened the whole floor to the public in time for our ‘Full Circle’ Graffiti jam and exhibition launch. That weekend saw over a thousand people come through the doors over the course of 3 days and Upper Space was in full effect. We knew the severe lack of public space in the spectacle of the city was a problem for the art community and we wanted to promote the social ethos that had brought us all together through the sharing of a simple idea, a thought, at the start of this journey. In the present, we are made to feel isolated and seperated from each other, as we maintain the day to day and we wanted Upper Space to be a safe haven, a treetop retreat, where like minded individuals could meet up for free, share their thoughts, kick start ideas and offer a counterbalance to the generic, homogenised ‘culture’ that surrounds us and invades our lives on a daily basis. As word of mouth spread, we were approached by many collectives, community and environmental groups, artists, dissidents and rebels! It was great to see the space coming alive finally after months of development.

Upper Space opened its doors to a select public in Feb 2008. How did you promote the event and was it as successful as you had anticipated?

Yeah february the 29th was the date we were aiming for – a leap year, we liked that, burnt into our psyche as the end of the journey, little did we know it was really the start of it. It went right up to the wire, 11th hour final touches, we were still hanging paintings at 5 minutes to 7 and the private view guests were waiting in the event space with no idea as to what was happening behind the closed doors. The launch party wasn’t to a select public, you just had to have a ticket so we could manage the door numbers. It was a tight one but we opened the doors and just over 400 people came through to see the show that night.

We had a shockingly small budget for the launch, we produced print promotion that was distributed throughout the city and we relied heavily on viral marketing – mailing lists, social networking sites, blogs and press etc. in order to reach people and spread the word. I hand made 100 private view invites in the studio with customised envelopes and i remember us all stood round a table, collaborating our black books and plotting the delivery route on a map, pinpointing important people in the art, community and music professions. We then hand delivered them to the addresses to give our gallery a more personal, human touch. It was a very exciting and nervous time. What did we know about launching the regions first street art gallery space? Not a lot but in the end the result was better than we could of imagined. The launch was full to capacity, the bar was flowing and the music was bang on. When you get a thought, an idea and belief in something, it is such a beautiful process to see it realised. We all shared the idea and everyone who helped us to realise it made it a success. Yes the launch of the gallery was amazing for U.S. but the process leading up to it, the months without money, the stress, the difficulties, the solutions, were just as amazing for me personally as the end result.

Upper Space consisted of a number of components. Can you tell us a little more about the venture’s internal framework and the Community Interest Company that formed?

The internal framework was never a fixed, formal structure. It was progressive and fluid. the more time that passed, the more people who had important skills and shared the same ethos were incorporated. What started as 3 people building a gallery to show the public the sides of street art that were not available or understood, changed into a collective of individuals who recognised that the modern city environment might not have it’s priorities in order and we aimed to try and affect some positive change, no matter how small. Sketch City, Marbella Cafe and Mind On Fire formed the original co-operative, joined by the ladies behind the Silverwood Shop later on. None of us took a wage home, we just did what we thought needed to be done at that time. The CIC – Community Interest Company was formed when we became fully licensed and we recognised that we needed to adopt a formal, recognised structure in order to use the established systems that exist in order to enact some meaningful change.

The community ethos is all very utopian, but did the matrix of people involved ever lead to conflict?

I wouldn’t say the community ethos is very Utopian, humans have been living in communities since we first banded together to share skills and resources back in the cave days. The problem is that communities have become larger and especially in the city, our understanding of value systems has shifted to more profit based ones. We are all part of a community but few of us recognise this, when we use the word community we think of little villages where the residents spy on who’s dog is shitting in the cul-de-sac and the neighbourhood watch vigilantes are patrolling the streets with torches and pitch forks. We live in the city and we are part of an amazingly, diverse and social fabric yet we do not see it as a community – eye contact with strangers, talking to people sat next to you on a bus, the fears instilled in us keeps us apart and isolated in some respects. Keep your self to yourself and you might just be ok. Bollocks. Yes we had issues and arguments, it’s inevitable when you get different minds together, we all have unique, different perceptions on things but the point is to open dialogue, to try and understand, and find a solution. Sometimes we got it right, sometimes we got it wrong. What made me feel strong is that we were giving it a try, and not just lying back and thinking of England whilst you are nipped in the bud without a chance to flower.

As director of the gallery, what were your specific responsibilities? Can you perhaps describe the process of putting on a typical Upper Space exhibition?

Yeah, late nights, office living, and any stimulants ending in ‘ine’! Seriously speaking it was a process that was constantly evolving, each show is unique so the approach changed to suit. Through promoting music events in the city we had a good grasp of promotion and marketing, the difference with this process was that it hadn’t been done before and it was all an experiment. We knew certain things would remain constant,  we gave each show a 4 week turnaround – looking back it was a difficult thing to do but we were in a room with the light off essentially, i would have the next 3 months of artists shows lined up and programmed, i would work with the artists in developing a theme or context for the works and we would start the process of developing the art and running a lot of systems parallel to each  other, whether it was press, promotion, marketing, logistics, design, preparation of the space, print, personnel, distribution etc. There were many fassets to cover for a small team but everyone just got busy and we worked as hard as we had to in order to get it done.

The first few shows were a nightmare really, we had all been focussed on the actual launch and opening and after that is was a case of right……errr… what now? For our exhibitions we didn’t want to follow typical gallery approach because we weren’t a typical gallery. I remember being sat in gallery 2 with Jon when we were thinking about Chris Drury’s show and we thought it would be a good idea for a paintball shack in gallery 2 so visitors could interact with the ex-president Bush shooting range. So we built it and visitors got the chance to interact with the exhibition and become a part of the art, of the performance.

How did you source your artists?

There are so many talented artists in the city and further afield and it was difficult at times to select individuals. The first show – ‘This Is U.S.’ was a group show of artists that we had met through the Sketch City event as we wanted to promote the home grown talent in the city. Our Chris Drury show was simply down to the fact that he is an incredibly talented local artist that we felt had never got the chance to get the exposure he deserved in the city before. Fingathing were a Manchester institution and he provided the visual identity since their inception. We also wanted to bring street artists that were doing incredible things to the attention of the public in order to try and influence their perceptions of the art form and because of our links within the street art community we were able to get some of the UK’s most exciting street artists involved and the response from the public was beyond our expectations and incredibly supportive of our experiment.

In your opinion, which exhibition or event was the most successful? Or which was your favourite/most rewarding to host?

Personally for me, our ‘Full Circle’ exhibition was the most successful. Within the graffiti community, artists are all about developing their own style and battling with other writers and crews and it is a very closed yet fragmented circle with its codes, conventions and hierarchy. With this exhibition my aim was to bring together the artists and get them working together as a whole entity rather than separate artists. By bringing them together for a group show of the most talented graffiti writers from across the North West, the public was able to gain a complete visual cross-section of the range and scope of styles that the artists had developed in a context that removed hierarchy and inter-crew politics and as a result they would gain a unique insight into this very insular, misunderstood movement.

When we were setting up the show and the artists were painting the walls of the space, fueds going back 10 years were resolved and new links made that hopefully would increase the development of the art form in the area. For me that was a great thing to see as it is through collaboration, understanding and the sharing of ideas that leads to meaningful progression. I also wanted to explore the ramifications of graffiti writing – the price that artists pay to practice their art. We had members of the DPM crew send up art work from their prison cells in London for the show that were juxtaposed against the pieces in the gallery – exploring the questions of context, validity and worth. The title ‘Full Circle’ was also an important aspect as it was completing a personal cycle for us at Upper Space and getting back on to our main motivations and reasons for building the gallery in the beginning.

Any disasters?

Due to the nature of our experiment, there was no format to follow and it was new to all of us so inevitably we found ourselves in situations that weren’t exactly straight-forward. Licensing with the Police was a complete nightmare, they wanted all types of conditions put on the space because they were using judgement calls based on an ill-informed perspective – they thought Upper Space was a ‘breeding ground for anarchists’…….little did they know, we hadn’t even got started yet. The electrics were another source of endless amusement, the endless temporary fix of the toilets upstairs was another – if any one reading this came to one of our launches then you know what i am talking about, they were like Byker Grove’s on acid! Nice. Saying all this though, it was all part of the place, it wasn’t supposed to be easy and straight forward. When you try and do something unique with little experience and knowledge about what you are doing, you just accept these things and get to finding solutions.

Sadly, after a prolific 9 months expanding into a reputable contemporary art and social centre, Upper Space has been forced into closure following a dispute between the landlords and owners of the building. In true Upper Space style they threw one last party, the final farewell…and destroyed the place. A symbolic vent of anger or inevitable intoxicated reflexes? How was the event?

When we knew that the only option was exodus, we made sure all the important things were off site and we wanted one last experience in the space to see it off. We put the word out and some friends of ours that are on the free party tip brought down a nice, heavy rig for the event, we had no electrics on our floor so we had to run cables out of the windows from upstairs to power the rig and light setups. A host of Manchester’s best DJs turned up to play their selections and we it partied until 6am. I have to say the police were pretty well behaved with the party but so they should be. Negotiations were tense but brief, it’s pretty difficult to negotiate with the police when out of the corner of your eye you can see 3 of your mates running at a wall with a sofa repeatedly until they were satisfied with the hole they had made! Fun times.

About 300 people turned up to see the space off and at the end they took to the walls and completed the cycle of the space by returning it to it’s original condition. You can see this action in many ways, whether it was an angry finger to the landlords for shafting us over the rent or a symbolic destruction – as the parent of creation, isn’t important. In a city that is in constant flux, there are ghosts to former uses and past purposes in every building in the city and it is inevitable that the space would melt into the sea eventually due to the nature of the owners and the nature of what we were doing. the important thing is the knowledge learnt and the network and community created, these are not dependant on physical locality and can be transplanted into any space. In this day and age there is too much emphasis placed on property and physical ownership of spaces, we were bringing an art form raised outside on the streets, indoors, so it is no wonder that it should return to it’s original domain. It belongs there. It’s potency is there. It lives there.

How is everyone feeling now the hangover and the shock have subsided? Are the prospects bleak or bright for 2009?

2009 is set to be a better year than the one before. We are taking a well-deserved rest after the adventures of the last 18 months. So far my year has been the best yet, you never can tell what new doors open when other ones close. Upper Space will be returning at some point in the year but not until the groundwork has been done to ensure it’s survival and sustainability. We took huge risks and put ourselves under a lot of pressure to do what we did with Upper Space and you get one chance at a dry run, if another space is taken on it has to be done in a way that can give it the best possible chance of surviving. I am in contact with many community and environmental organisations and the response and feedback from what we built has been amazing and there are exciting new developments coming through so hang loose and stay tuned. You will see the Upper Space gallery taking on a few site specific projects in the next couple of months, details will be available on our new website that is going to be up at the end of Feb!!! Finally!!!

Is this the end of the Upper Space Collective…?

The Upper Space collective will be taking stock and resting up in the short term. Whatever happens in the year will no doubt involve all members of the collective in some respect, it’s hard to say what will happen when we don’t know the next stage of the journey. We are all just thankful to of been involved in part 1, we shall have to wait and see about part 2……..

Props and respects to all those that helped us create Upper Space, those that gave up their  time and skills and those that attended our events. Big love.

Nice one Barney!
Questions by Holly Dicker