Northern Voices: Finding diamonds in the rough

A grey, hazy veil has been placed over my vision. I sit hidden within the armour of my car, parked at the roadside, gazing at passers-by. I know this street and yet it looks so unfamiliar. I know that bend in the road, yet it looks like a stranger. As I stare, the road changes and warps. I can smell burning. A thick, dark smoke rises through the plastic seat belt hole like a stove-top kettle, infecting the air with a chalky exhaust stench.

I still think about that dream and the grey haze which clouded it. I knew it was set in the North of England. Not in a depressing way; more of a comforting, familiar hum of television static. Although I spent university in Surrey, my formative years in the North always manage to seep into my life. It shaped my university experience, often subconsciously, and influences how I view the art world and my place in it.

Photo: Avery Dire

After a seminar, I trudged to the pub with some classmates and over sticky tables and fresh pints, we talked about grades and the feedback we had received. As the conversation drifted into messy group babbling, someone said to me about of the blue: “I’m working class too, you know.”

Maybe it was an attempt at relatability. Maybe it was an awkward moment of silence that squeezed it out of them. I laughed, confused, and brush over it and we moved on. My university work had never touched on being working class or Northern and I had never spoken about it.

I felt that people around me knew indescribable things I didn’t. They seemed comfortable in middle class art spaces, where I didn’t.

Photo: Avery Dire

During a class trip to Somerset House, I looked at the white walls of the gallery. The poster for the exhibition, titled ’24/7′, had sounded interesting, but I felt a bit disappointed. It was a quirky commentary on social media by artists who were mostly over 40. Neon lights and colourful pop-style posters, with no punch, about how technology rots our brain and how we all work too much.

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For something that was trying to recreate the modern social media attention-grabbing experience, I had never felt less stimulated in my life. I stood in the gallery wondering whether I was being pretentious or overly critical, yet I couldn’t help feeling that I expected more.

After graduating, I moved to Manchester and signed-on at the job centre. The cross-armed security guard always asked for my name with a bark. My work coach feedbacks on recent job interviews, telling me I’m too art focused. A job coach once told me to take my new degree off my CV to become more employable for hospitality.

Photo: Avery Dire

I nodded my head as she referred to me jobs that I didn’t want, knowing that they can cut you off if you become too difficult.

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I kept working on my own projects at the same time as applying to jobs. Finishing off a painting or editing some sound work, while figuring out where to direct myself. I wandered around the city centre, dropping into exhibitions I had found on social media and then going home to research the artists.

I wanted to be around other people, experiencing and consuming art that made me feel good.

Photo: Avery Dire

Libraries and community-centred spaces were diamonds in the rough, allowing me to create art and be part of creative communities away from the commercialised art world. I remember spending afternoons painting with my housemate in the kitchen or working together on a film we wanted to make, not caring if any of it turned out ‘good’.

Now, more than ever, I think it’s integral to find our own value and communities with each other, to reclaim the distribution of our artistic work. To find fulfilment in-between finding an income and the absurdity of life.

This is the final article in our Northern Voices series, commissioned in collaboration with Manchester Collective.