The Ramblings of an Urban Art Director
…I sat, in the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s darkened Courtyard theatre watching 6 Degrees Below the Horizon (Imitating the Dog theatre company, part of the Transform festival) when I was struck by something I thought rather profound. It wasn’t anything to do with the innovative blend of (sometimes quite explicitly homoerotic) cinema and live theatre or, indeed, the fact that I could see something quite this bonkers on a whim on a soggy Thursday night in Leeds. It was the language, the projected English subtitles for the non-Francophones in the audience. Every time the protagonist (veritably glowing under the spots in his tight white sailor’s pants and wife-beater vest – I told you it was homoerotic) started an emotionally-charged line he would say “écoute!” and the subtitles would faithfully translate it. “Listen!” he exhorted.
But… I don’t say that. I never say that. “Look!” I say, “What about x?” or “Look, we need to do y.”
I’ll wager you do the same.
This little linguistic foible, a tic of speech, another of those vagaries of the English language that confuses even the most sharp-eared of foreigners and renders their speech faintly ridiculous to us natives, sparked a whole train of thought, briefly distracting me from the simulated oral sex on stage, about the nature of seeing and visual stimulus. You see (there we go again) we’re visual beings, our stimulation comes primarily through the eyes… but sometimes we become jaded with the familiarity of our surroundings, filtering out the commonplace, focusing on the novel. This can stop us from seeing the truly magical nature of our own lives, putting the seemingly anodyne into the Junk Mail folder of the mind.
Honestly, I dearly love Leeds and West Yorkshire. I first came here in ’89, sucked in by the gravitational pull of the University (it was that or succumbing to the drudgery of a junior programming job in Liverpool) and stuck. I used to say that I’ve spent most of my adult life in Leeds and Bradford, a naturalised Yorkshireman; in fact, this year, I have spent more than half of my entire life here. As an immigrant to this, God’s Own County, I don’t have the filters of the Leeds-born. These are beautiful cities, hard-birthed from the womb of the textile industry, with an architectural exuberance that comes from the self-confidence of the nouveau riche. That vigorous middle class fashioned an urban environment that sings with contrast. From the quaint, functional beauty of the workers’ cottages of Saltaire to the brutality of the Dark Arches of Granary Wharf, the variation is dizzying. Just go down to Holbeck and look at the Victorian insanity that is Temple Works. It’s as if an ancient Egyptian temple had been teleported from the Nile basin into the middle of a load of scruffy Leeds warehouses. Complete with a chimney cunningly disguised as an obelisk. If that image doesn’t boggle the mind, I don’t know what could. Simply stand on Briggate and look up, above the homogenised strip of familiar retail façades to the frothing Victorian architectural mélange hiding in plain sight.
But that’s not the half of it. My job makes me sensitive to detail, the minutiae of the world. How litter builds up in corners, how leaky gutters make dark stains on ancient brickwork – those nuanced particulars that convince the eye. I broke my visual filters a long time ago. Like the aftermath of a tab of good acid, the world can blaze and vibrate when looked at with broken eyes – the stuff of life floods in unchecked. Go to North Bar on New Briggate, with its constantly rotating art exhibition. Nation of Shopkeepers (Cookridge Street) has its video installations, collections of found objects (my nine-year-old son proudly points out his Shrek toy serving beer to a motley collection of lost dolls on a shelf behind the bar) and the cutest monochrome mural outside the toilets – that’s just the pubs. Don’t get me started on the galleries, theatres and artistic “happenings”.