The Convivialist Toolbox

Artist Susanne Bosch lead a workshop for regional artists as part of our continued professional development programme.

The event, which was attended by 42 artists focused on working with communities of place / interest.

With various artistic experiments and formats Bosch and the group looked at the nature of our interdependency and what every individual brings to the table.

The day offered open space between workshop, practice, constructive dispute, action and re-action.

Bosch explained before the event: “Experts of the everyday – as all participants are – are invited to share their knowledge and questions. We start the day at an agreed time, but will leave the end open for formats to emerge from the process. If one idea manifests in reality afterwards, a convivialist contribution has been made. A reporting back of manifested ideas and a documentation is highly welcomed. We are interested in the consequences of the NOW for TOMORROW. The toolbox day offers an experimental format of approaching a human, societal or globally urgent topic.”

convivialist* from the Latin ‘con-vivere’, to live together. The term is meant to point up the fact that the main task we face is that of working out a new philosophy and developing practical forms of peaceful interaction.


“Eerie and stunning” was one audience members review of Refrain – a roaming choral performance in St Helens Town Centre.

Historic sites of St Helens played host to four sold out performances in May 2017

Award-winning composer and choir leader Verity Standen led twelve local men as they responded to the history of school teacher, Ernest Everett. Everett was a conscientious objector, tried and sentenced in St Helens.

The histories of conscientious objection in England require a sensitive and respectful approach. Heritage stories such as Ernest Everett, a teacher in St Helens and a World War One Conscientious Objector, are often left unheard and misunderstood, viewed as irrelevant and in isolation instead of part of a national, contemporary story.

This story and others formed the backdrop of the immersive choral experience by composer Verity Standen. The sold-out walking performances started at The Masonic Hall and took in Friends Meeting House.

Refrain Tumblr page


Before I die….

Before I die was a participatory public art project that invited people to contemplate death, re ect on life, and share their personal aspirations in public.

After losing someone she loved, artist Candy Chang channelled her grief and depression into this project covering a crumbling house with chalkboard paint and stencilled with the prompt, “Before I die I want to _____.”

The project has now been created in over 70 countries, including Iraq, China, Brazil, Kazakhstan, and South Africa. Revealing the community’s longings, anxieties, joys, and struggles, it explores how public space can cultivate self- examination and empathy among neighbours and compassionately prepare us for death and grief.

Presented in partnership with SICK! Festival & St Helens Council

Getting To Know You


A new art project has been encouraging residents in two St Helens housing schemes to reach out and get to know each other.

This summer artist Sheila Ghelani has worked with the residents of Helena Partnership sheltered housing scheme.

Each week Sheila will work with residents to make out-of-the-ordinary gestures, creating a stir that reaches out to their community and invites others to step over the thresholds within the scheme.

Sheila, an interdisciplinary artist working in performance, installation, participatory event  and moving image, is currently leading the series of workshops in the schemes that continue into September.

Shelia, explained: “When I first visited the housing schemes one of the main things that struck me was that both the residents and Health and Wellbeing Office Nikki Wilkinson mentioned wanting to somehow engage with the more private residents, those who are a bit invisible and might not come down to meetings for a variety of reasons.

“There was also a lot of talk about doorways! So I started to wondering about how to cross some of those more private thresholds, to gain access or make contact with those that don’t come down to the common room, in the most non-intrusive of ways (letters, invites, gifts,  sound).

“So that was the project’s initial starting point – ways in which to cross this very important boundary – the one between the residents private space and public space. It’s going to be great to see where the project ends up!”

The opening workshops saw participants create individual floral invitations, which were hand delivered to each of the properties within the scheme.

The mysterious hand printed invitations dropped through letterboxes with a note offering everyone in the scheme the chance to ‘Join Us’ – on a specific date, but with no location offered. This created a talking point, whereby participants and staff were able to share more detail about the forthcoming event.

Newcomers to the project then came out to join early participants and see a cellist and violinist perform – including the song ‘Getting to Know You’.

The growing group of residents from Parr Mount Court and Heald Farm Court will continue to work with Sheila to create new ways of getting to know their neighbours and explore the thresholds and boundaries that exist in their communities.

The project will continue throughout August and into early September. If you would like any more information please contact


Instagram: @sheilaghelani



The Glass Work

The Glass Work invited people to take a photograph of their surroundings and immediately respond with a soundscape.

The artwork read the colours in photos people sent, then played them as sounds played on six hand blown glass gongs.

The work was created in collaboration with young people from St Helens and reflected collective journeys and encounters.  It was inspired by looking out from the car park above Church Square at the landscape of St Helens.

The artwork was hosted at Thatto Heath Crusaders Rugby League Club, The World of Glass museum, Parr Library and Derbyshire Hill Family Centre.

David Boultbee, Lead Artist of BREAD art collective, said: “Encountering something new and unexpected like The Glass Work invites us to pause to explore fresh perspectives on familiar surroundings and how an audience can use technology and social media to contribute to and influence an artwork.”

BREAD art, use light, sound and interactive technologies with a strong social focus to create artworks inspired by spaces and the public realm.

The Glass Work was jointly commissioned by FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology), a digital arts organisation based in Liverpool, Heart of Glass and Helena Partnerships. Heart of Glass commissions artists to produce art with the communities of St Helens. The Make It Happen Project is developed by Helena Partnerships, it works to increase opportunities for young people locally. The glass elements were designed in collaboration with and blown by glass blowers, Charlie Burke and Amy Skachill-Kelly from The World of Glass in St Helens.

Prototype Projects Round 5

Heart of Glass is delighted to be supporting seven new projects through the latest round of Prototype Projects, our commissioning strand that supports artists and communities in St Helens to develop new ideas and creative explorations.

A total of over £4000 was allocated to support one Prototype Project (up to £2000) and five Research & Development (R&D) projects (up to £500). The ideas for this round include commissioning new artwork for a young people’s space in St Helens Central Library alongside professional development support for artists working across a range of disciplines including performance and live art. We have supported over 40 projects by local artists and communities to date.

The decision-making panel (which changes each round) included: Carmel Baines (Community Arts Manager, The Citadel), Ann-Marie Owens (Founder, Pheonix Apparel), Laura Robertson (Co-Founder and Editor of The Double Negative magazine) and Rhyannon Parry (artist and previous Prototype Project award recipient).

Prototype Projects (Round 5) will be supporting artists working on the following projects:

Wendy Mumford (R&D)

Wendy Mumford will spend the next six months developing her professional practice as a textile artist and her recently established collaboration with St Helens based agencies who support people experiencing mental health difficulties. To support this Wendy will benefit from mentoring, networking and research opportunities.

Cath Shea (R&D)

Artist Cath Shea will work closely with London based writer and performance artist Ursula Martinez to explore the potential of a longer-term collaboration to transform a series of monologues created for alter-ego Kitty O’Shea into a live art piece.

Mike Lindley (R&D)

Mike Lindley will focus on developing his fledgling practice as an artist and performer inspired by his ongoing collaboration with artist Mark Storor as part of the Heart
of Glass commission Baa Baa Baric: Have You Any Pull?. Using a portrait of himself created with Storor as a starting point, Mike will develop a live performance as well as ideas for new participatory work exploring notions of regret.

Jacqui Priestley (R&D)

Jacqui Priestley will spend the next six months accessing research, workshop and networking opportunities that will enable her to develop her artistic practice, specifically in relation to socially engaged arts practice and an investigation of memory and lost narratives through collaboration with dementia sufferers.

Fiona Sterling & Amy Russell (R&D)

Artists Fiona Sterling and Amy Russell will undertake
a period of research and development to explore the position of women with children in the workplace and the contemporary art world. To support this they will receive mentoring from one or more female artists / curators / producers whose practices address similar ideas.

Reading Hack

Reading Hack, a group of young volunteers aged 13 to 24 years based at St Helens Library, will work closely with Heart of Glass to commission, and work in collaboration with, an artist to create a clearly identifiable, animated and engaging space within the Library for young people to use.

2020 Vision

A live event and a town centre exhibition are set to take place in St Helens as part of a six-month residency project.

2020 Vision: An exhibition exploring the future of our world is being led by artist Sophie Mahon. Sophie has been working with young people from Parr, Fingerpost and FourAcre to explore ideas around their visions for the future as well as creating a number of works based on their present day experiences.

As part of the residency, work will be shared with the public via a live event, town centre promotion and an exhibition.

The project, in partnership with Helena Homes Make It Happen project, has lead to a host of exciting future events and outcomes. Firstly, a free to attend live event takes place at Derbyshire Hill Family Centre on Friday (April 21st).

The event is led by a group of free runners and gymnasts from Parr who will be showing off their skills. The free runners move from building and object while performing jumps and other skilful moves.

The group has been working with Sophie and alongside professional free runners coaches on a live visual performance.

Friday’s event will showcase their work in a live visual performance at the centre from 5.30pm.

Following the showcase work from the project will be housed in a disused town centre shop from May 4th-21st.

Sophie explained: “The show looks at the worst and best possible outcomes for the future. The show includes a range of paintings, interactive video works and sculptures and spreads beyond the pop up space as well as shop windows in and around Church Square and throughout community spaces in St Helens.”

The exhibition will be signposted to people across the borough and a private view takes place on Thursday, May 4th (from 5pm-7pm).

Image: A quote from a young participant that will be used on the digital traffic management boards in St Helens.



Heart of Glass hosted the premiere of Bravado by Scottee, which was hosted in the changing rooms at St Helens Rugby League Club.

Scottee grew up around strong, brave and violent men and boys. Bravado is
his memoir of working class masculinity from 1991 to 1999 as seen by a sheep
in wolves clothing. Bravado explores the graphic nature of maleness and the extent it will go to succeed.

Blood, spit and tears are set against the drunken backdrop of aggressive sensitivity and Oasis songs.

Read Michael Egan’s review here

In My Place


Heart of Glass have worked in partnership with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra to create unique performances opportunities in people’s homes and workplace.

In My Place attracted applications from across the borough with performances taking place from 2015 – 2017.

Kat Dempsey, of Heart of Glass, said: “In My Place is a project which creates unique opportunities for people in St Helens to engage with arts and culture on their own doorstep.

Residents were invited to apply by telling us in around 150 why they wanted to host a performance.

Through The Looking Glass: A Travelogue

Mary Paterson is a writer and producer

I’m a twenty-first century traveller, so my route is marked out in high street logos. Costa Coffee, Poundsaver, Sports Direct – those modern day lighthouses – beam into the brisk November air as I arrive in St. Helens. It’s my first time here, so I follow the logos from the train station to the town centre until their bright lights fade from view, which is to say: the logos are still there, but I don’t notice them as much. They illuminate the landscape to my stranger’s eyes.

Gradually, I notice the town in more detail. The glow of a pub behind its stained glass windows. An eccentric Christmas display in a home-wares shop. The friendly assistant in Subway, who chats about her upcoming trip to the Citadel.



There’s a naivety and a romance to being an outsider – naturally drawn to everything that is familiar, and hyper-aware of everything that’s different.  It is on this brink that I find the artist Marcia Farquhar teetering, precariously, the following morning. She is standing on the edge of the canal in the centre of St. Helens wearing a swimming costume and a fake fur coat. The air is bitterly cold. Beneath Marcia, a rusty shopping trolley bobs up and down in the water. Beside her, a small crowd pauses to watch, on their way to shopping at The Range.

Both a real person and a larger-than-life
persona, Marcia is leading a walking tour of St. Helens, she says, from an outsider’s perspective. She is a glamorous Londoner with a charming smile, and she begins with an anecdote about her relationship to swimming, before attempting to release an electronic fish into the canal.Her day-long performance is part reminiscence, part imagination, and part homage to the history of the town: famously, the canal was once so heated by emissions from the local factory, that tropical fish could survive in its waters. Like Marcia herself, A Song for St. Helens is never anything less than thoroughly entertaining.

It is also one artwork in ‘Through the Looking Glass’, a “weekend of performances to watch and be part of”[1] curated by the Live Art Development Agency (LADA) for Heart of Glass. Heart of Glass is a cultural organisation supported by the Arts Council’s ‘Creative People and Places’ fund – a fund that “focuses on parts of the country where involvement in the arts is significantly below the national average.” [2] In other words, this charismatic performer regaling a dozen people with her tall tales is, also, part of a multi-layered, institutional intervention into the fabric of the town.



Later that afternoon, I sit in an airy room next to the Heart of Glass office and watch Ian Greenall give a presentation about a ‘Festival of Failure’ for St. Helens.  A lecturer based nearby, Ian took part in a workshop organised by LADA and led by the artists Joshua Sofaer and Karen Christopher. The workshop was called This Will Never Happen, and it was part of LADA’s annual peer-to-peer professional development programme, DIY, run by and for artists. This particular workshop asked local artists to develop ambitious ideas, un-daunted by the real-life concerns of budgets, space or the probability that anything will come to fruition. (The presentation of those ideas, in a series of 10 minute talks, is another fixture in the ‘Through the Looking Glass’ programme.)

St. Helens ‘Festival of Failure’, Ian says, will formally excise the town of all its complaints. He is delivering a performance lecture (both a real lecture, and a character performing one), that imagines he is talking to an audience of ‘stakeholders’ –the kinds of people who might make decisions about public money and public space. The kinds of people like Heart of Glass, for instance, or the local councils, government agencies, businessmen and community leaders that help them realise their ideas.
The local community will be invited to moan about everything that has gone wrong, Ian explains: to air all their personal and collective shortcomings, an make an offering to a pecially built helter-skelter that rises out of the reservoir each year. In return for this ritual, no-one will complain for the next 365 days – until it’s time for the ‘Festival of Failure’ the following year.


A couple of months later, I talk to Patrick Fox, the director of Heart of Glass, about his ambitious plans for the organisation. He describes four interweaving strands that Heart of Glass supports: Art, The Arts, Practice and Participation. Over the coming years, he hopes, Heart of Glass will present high quality art in St. Helens; make sure the arts are a thriving and well represented part
of the community; help artists develop their careers; and encourage local people to take part in one or more of these activities, in one or more ways.

In other words, while the reason Heart of Glass exists may be to reverse the trend, observed by the national gaze of Creative People and Places, of lower than average participation in the arts in St. Helens, its raison d’etre is to position art as a process, rather than an indicator. “Our philosophy and approach as a project” Patrick writes in a recent article for Arts Professional, “is rooted in collaboration.”[3]  In the context of art, ‘collaboration’ is a heavily loaded term: digging even deeper than participation, it implies fair and equal relationships, attention to detail and careful communication.

It is this tension between the (necessarily) broad focus of a laudable initiative like Creative People and Places and the (necessarily) more sensitive, local focus of a delivery arm like Heart of Glass, that Ian navigates so skilfully, and so hilariously, in his presentation. He combines the outsider’s eye – the national gaze that marks St. Helens as a ‘failure’ – with his insider’s knowledge. He presents grand ambition and pizazz – a helter-skelter! rising like a phoenix! –in the local vernacular: with a knowing wink, Ian reminds us not to complain about the benches that have recently, and controversially, been removed from the shopping centre.

The room laughs. ‘This will never happen,’ indeed. Can art really help St. Helens break free from its post-industrial ‘failure’?  And, if so, could it really be the job of an artist from St. Helens to reimagine the town? Isn’t that normally the role of the glamorous outsider – someone internationally famous, perhaps, like Joshua Sofaer or Karen Christopher, the artists who came up from London to run the workshop in the first place?

The first presentation in This Will Never Happen is from the artist Catherine Shea, who barges through the audience in the guise of a cleaner. She pretends to have overheard some artists talking about “socially engaged practice,” an art-world term that means, loosely, art that exists in relationships, rather than objects.

The ‘cleaner’ is not sure what it is, she says, but it sounds like the kind of thing that will save the world. She heard the plan was to imitate world leaders, sort out everyone’s problems, institute world peace, and retire the old politicians to a tropical island. “And then, perhaps another group of socially engaged artists might like to do some work with them …”

Like Ian’s talk, Catherine’s act is bitingly funny. The joke, of course, is that the people identifying the ‘failing’ town or community targeted for ‘socially engaged practice’ are not normally the members of that community themselves. This is the hallmark of ‘culture-led regeneration’ – a form of social policy that invests in the cultural value of a geographic area, in order to stimulate economic growth. When Ian and Catherine perform ‘impossibility’ by returning an institutional gaze, this is the institution that they are staring at.


The term ‘culture-led regeneration’ may not be familiar to everyone in the room, but the target of this humour certainly is. Audience members from St. Helens laugh at the smooth misrepresentation of their real lives. Audience members from elsewhere laugh at the discomfort of judging an unknown place. And Heart of Glass, which has a foot in both camps – both the tool of a national idea, and the guiding hand of a local consortium – laughs along in its own space: the space in which all this is invited to happen.

Like Marcia, then, Heart of Glass teeters on the edge of a dangerous fall. It is tasked with bringing something new to St. Helens, without replacing what is already here. Or, in the words of Creative People and Places, it should “demonstrate the power of the arts to enrich the lives of individuals and make positive changes in communities”[4] – without alienating the communities it seeks to change.

Perhaps this is why Patrick says he prefers to think about ‘civic participation’ – ways to draw attention to social bonds and stories. In Joshua Sofaer’s Your Name Here, for example, a local park was renamed after a local person, following a public competition. The eventual winner was announced in September 2015 as Vera Page, the childhood name of local resident Vera Bowes, who nominated herself and her personal history overcoming grief, ill health and domestic abuse.

In the process of Your Name Here, Patrick says, people kept asking, “when does the art happen?”  They were expecting there to be a sign or a ceremony that would establish the artistic value of this collective act. But the ‘art’ was there all along – from the idea that a park could be renamed by the public, to the nominations received by local people, and the fact the judges chose to honour a private person with a powerful life-story.

Here, and across Heart of Glass’s approach as a whole, the ‘work’ of art is not the opportunity to look at different things, but the space to look at things differently. It is not, then, a culture imposed from outside, but a changing focus on the cultures that are already here – like a street festooned in recognisable logos, it uses the diffuse glare of the outside world to illuminate the details unique to that place.

This variable perspective is the reason why everyone at the presentations for This Will Never Happen is laughing. Each and everyone of us – insider or out, audience or artist – is in on the joke. In other words, this is not really a joke; this is a conversation.


St. Helens (as Marcia will tell you) is known, historically, for its glass factory and rugby teams. But, to the outsider’s eye at least, it is characterised, these days, by shopping. It’s not just the familiarity of logos that draws me into the heart of town, in fact, but also the sheer number of them. There are two large shopping centres, a sprawling pedestrianized zone, and a vast car park in the centre of town. To walk through St. Helens on a weekend is to lose yourself in the rhythm of a steady flow of shoppers – families, friends, couples, comfortable and relaxed in the distracted half-attention of being courted by slightly more desirable versions of ourselves.

Maybe this rhythm is due, in part, to the controversial removal of those benches – the benches that Ian referred to in his talk. The Hardshaw Centre is the largest shopping centre in town, and its wide, well-lit corridors constitute a large part of St. Helens public space (albeit, privately owned public space). Now the benches have gone, there is nowhere to meet, eat, talk, wait, loiter or read inside the shopping centre. The only thing to do is shop.

Unless you are in The Hardshaw Centre on a particular cold November morning, that is. I have come here to look for The Institute For The Art and Practice of Dissent at Home (the artists Lena Simic and Gary Andersen, alongside their four young children), who are presenting Manifestoval – a day long, public workshop in which they invite people to write manifestos for the town. They have arrived with their own bench.

Ostensibly, the bench is a prop to encourage people to stay and chat. But, in this context, it is also a direct statement about the (private) design of this (public) space.  And, importantly, it is not what was agreed with Heart of Glass – which counts the shopping centre amongst one of its most important allies.

I hear whispers about the bench before I see it. It is occupied by a mother and daughter who have a lot to say about the removal of the old ones. As interventions into the flow of shopping in this space, both the bench and Manifestoval as a whole, send ripples through the town. The work pierces the gloss and the rhythm of a shopping Saturday and asks, implicitly, what (else) are you going to do?

It also puts the event organisers in a difficult position. Perhaps inevitably, the Institute gets thrown out of the shopping centre. This marks a clear division between in and out, shopping and not-shopping, local and non-local. Effectively, it means that bystanders, audience members and artists are forced to take sides between two different types of activity: art, or shopping?



Back in the town centre earlier in the day, Marcia is taking us to see Pedigree Chums, a workshop run by the artists Susannah Hewlett and Steve Nice. They have spent the morning next to the shopping centre café, inviting adults and children to dress up as animals. Why? For no obvious reason – it’s not a marketing exercise, like the bouncy people in the town square who really want to chat about your mobile phone provider; it’s not a shopping promotion, like the luminous signs flashing from every shop window; it is not even a workshop designed to foster ambition and creative ideas. At 1pm the animals – people dressed in chaotic costumes of tinsel, glitter and gaudy fabric – parade proudly past the shops and shoppers. Security guards march over to take a look.
It’s not the first time Susannah and Steve have raised eyebrows in St. Helens. The night before they performed a humorous skit on the spirit of dating, as part of Duckie at The Citadel. Duckie bills its event as a ‘21st century Music Hall’ – a cabaret night of of karaoke, comedy, strip tease and a pinch of audience-participation. It is also the opening act for ‘Through the Looking Glass’: a Friday night bonanza to kick off the weekend.

Duckie has been running for 20 years in south London, at the vanguard of the LGBT, alternative and avant-garde performance scenes. Here, in St. Helens, it’s a newcomer. Even so, The Citadel, which is more often filled with mainstream names and tribute acts, is packed.  “Who’s from Manchester?” shouts Amy Lamé, the evening’s charming and glamorous hostess. A loud cheer rings out from the back of the room. “Who’s from Liverpool? Who’s from St. Helens?”


People have travelled from across the country to watch this collage of different acts, including Duckie stalwarts like Ursula Martinez, and newer performers like Tallulah Haddon, a fragile-looking nineteen-year old who, it turns out, is both an innocent starlet and a ravenous cannibal.


Ursula has been running a workshop nearby, also part of LADA’s DIY series, called Don’t Wait Tables: Make An Act. The idea is to get artists to turn their artwork into money – put together an act to supplement your income, instead of doing casual work. Duckie features a handful of artists who have come through previous versions of this workshop in other towns, including Katy Baird, who gleefully smashes a laptop to the sound of I Can’t Live Without You.

In many ways, the irreverence of Duckie is just as alternative and activist as the Manifestoval. But it is much less provocative – even when it is being openly provocative, like when Sam Reynolds takes a middle-aged man away from his seat with his wife, puts him centre stage, and treats him to an extremely energetic striptease.

While both experiences are expansive and surprising, the difference between Duckie and Manifestoval lies in the way they move. Manifestoval, adopting an historic strategy of the avant-garde, sends a shock through public space. It splinters the flow of the shopping centre, chipping attention onto other things. Duckie, in contrast, is continuously in flux. It is fast paced, it is various, and it checks in with the crowd. “Are you alright?” asks Amy. “Are you having a good time?”


Here in The Citadel on a Friday night, in the midst of the laughter and the music, is a spectrum of different acts –  from the polished to the provisional, from the moving to the straightforwardly silly. Here is a spectrum of different audience members – from the local arts crowd to Duckie aficionados from further afield. And here, as a result, is a dialogue – between the people on stage and the people eating chips in the dress circle; between the avant-garde and the mainstream; between the local and the traveller.


Duckie is not only a conversation, but a conversation between equals. And it is not only a conversation between equals, but a conversation between people moving together. This, of course, is how all the best conversations happen – the kind you stay up late for, the kind you remember for the rest of your life.

And this is the tone of the conversations Heart of Glass is trying to establish as a whole. Heart of Glass is, itself, a complex, fluid and mobile context. It is an organisation for and about St. Helens, with a decade-long vision, and a commit
ment to community and participation. It is also a publicly funded body, supported by a Conservative government, in partnership with private enterprise. It is concerned with Art, The Arts, Practice and Participation. It is concerned with people who live here, who visit here, and who have not yet thought of coming.

Importantly, however, Heart of Glass is not necessarily concerned with all these people at the same time. By inviting LADA to curate a weekend of Live Art – a field which includes strategies you could file under ‘socially engaged practice’ or ‘collaboration’, as well as those you might call ‘high risk’ or ‘the avant-garde’ – Heart of Glass is in conversation with art as an international discourse, as well as with St. Helens as a location. Some of these conversations move more easily than others; all of them invite movement and exchange.


Perhaps this is why the other presentations in This Will Never Happen are all concerned with movement and change, too. Naoise Johnson Martin and Ryannon Parry suggest a roaming artists’ residency on a plane, where art is made over thousands of miles and across time zones. Claire Weetman proposes a giant maze made of human gestures that will stretch across national borders. Formed of volunteers performing the gestures of politicians and statesman, the maze will repurpose photo opportunities, symbolically, into real action. And Jeni McConnell describes a giant, mirrored dome to seal off a disputed piece of public space, reflecting its ontology back onto the people who can’t decide what it means.
These artists’ versions of the impossible all transcend comfortable definitions. They float above geographical, political and societal borders, intervene in the functions of the physical world, and suggest new types of belonging. In this sense, like Ian and Catherine, they are in conversation with the cultural bureaucracy that has to map ‘community’, ‘place’ or, indeed ‘the arts’ as measurable entities: the cultural bureaucracy, in other words, that makes it possible for things like ‘Through the Looking Glass’ and ‘Heart of Glass’ to happen.

Art is never funded by public money for purely aesthetic reasons but always, as in the case of Creative People and Places, on the understanding that it is good for people – economically, socially or even physically. And yet, part of art’s success is that it doesn’t fit neatly into any of these categories – art is, of course, not (just) economics, it is not social engineering, it is not healthcare.

This, ultimately, is what separates art from a leisure activity like (for example) shopping: you can measure a shop’s success by the number of people who shop there; but art is more than a single transaction. And, while you can measure art’s discrete economic, social or physical benefits when you look backwards, you can’t predict its effects by mapping forwards in the same way. In the context of public funding, then, art meets public aims because it is aesthetic (multiple and compicated), but it gets public money for the reasons it’s not (because it’s good for people).


We are late for Peter Darwin’s Music shop on George street. The cold is beginning to bite and everyone is looking forward to heading inside. Marcia pushes the door, and the shopkeeper, John, greets us with a broad grin. He has the look of someone who doesn’t quite believe this is happening – twenty strangers, piled into his shop, soon to join him in a jam and sing-along to Dirty Old Town by Ewan MacColl. There follows music, photographs and warm smiles, then just as we’re all making to leave, a friend of John’s comes in, wearing sunglasses and carrying a suitcase full of poems.

He’d heard we were going to be here, he says.

“Can we have a poem?” asks Marcia.

The man opens his suitcase and takes out two wooden sticks. He performs a stunning rendition of his own verse – funny, irreverent, sharp – to the rhythm of the sticks, which he beats together in front of his chest.  The room erupts in applause. When the clapping has died down Marcia, a conduit for everyone’s delight, says, excitedly, “You must tell us your name!”

“Tommy Two Sticks,” says the poet.

Of course.


As an experience, A Song for St. Helens, like the rest of the ‘Through the Looking Glass’ programme and like Heart of Glass itself, is a wandering exchange, full of surprising encounters, fizzing with unfamiliar ideas, understood by stories told in retrospect. While, now, I can’t imagine a better name for the visiting poet, I would never have guessed it in advance. And while his performance feels like a natural part of Marcia’s peripatetic show, it was in fact a chance meeting – we were all running late, and he arrived half an hour after Marcia had planned to leave.

This, then, is art that exists in relationships rather than objects. Nothing here is static and nothing is predictable –not the artists, not the audience members, not the place, not its streets, none of our histories and none of our futures.

And this, then, is art that persists in conversation with the cultural bureaucracies of measurement, surveillance and visibility that permeate every aspect of modern life. We live in a world that predicts our TV viewing habits based on our age and our ideology based on what we wear on our heads. In return, we navigate public spaces using convenient short hand: Google, Facebook, Poundsaver, Costa Coffee. We collect loyalty card stamps like passport visas. We wander the precincts of pedestrianized zones, gesturing to each other with the logos on our T-shirts.

Just like the outsider’s perspective that marks St. Helens a ‘failure’ in order to reward it with investment, this wider cultural measurement is necessary, inevitable, limiting, and it sets us free. Its allure lies in its contrast to the competing rhythms of life: it is the stable base from which we can launch our mobile selves; from which we can swing backwards and forwards in time, ideas and relationships; from which we can dance between versions of ourselves, make stories out of the world, and gather handfuls of different perspectives.

Heart of Glass is borne from the definitions of place, identity and stability that measure a town and its people. But it exists as an ongoing, enriching, cultural conversation. It is the accidental encounter between Tommy Two Sticks and a group of tourists to the town. It is the curiosity of two security guards at a parade of people dressed like animals.  It defies its own definitions; and all that you or I can do is tell stories about it in retrospect. The stories will never contain what has happened. Instead, they make it happen again: they continue the conversation, they illuminate the detail, they invite you to participate.

[1] Through the Looking Glass brochure, 2015

[2] accessed 01/04/2016

[3] Patrick Fox ‘On the touchline’ Arts Professional, first published 26.01.16  Accessed 31.01.16

[4], 1/2/16