Northern Soul all-nighter to grab sound from floorboards at Manchester's Victoria Baths

By Ben Miller | 23 April 2014

Ten days of art in a set of ancient Baths draw the line between Northern Soul, exotic bodybuilders and economic despair

A photo of a woman drawing a large illustration on a wall
Artist Naomi Kendrick will fill the Victoria Baths' gala pool, which measures 75ft by 40ft, with a huge scroll in a participatory art project as part of Un-Rest Festival© Courtesy Un-Rest Festival
If Northern Soul’s unfading trendiness is rarely outdone by its environs, the Victoria Baths – a Grade II-listed, 1906 building on the outskirts of Manchester, most prominently known for winning £3.4 million from the BBC’s Restoration series in 2003, ten years after they officially closed – might just be about to do the trick.

As part of the Un-Rest Festival, a ten-day exploration of “the power of physical movement”, an all-nighter will run for 12 hours. Wayne Hemingway will be DJing, and it’s something of a warm-up for a Sunday dance battle between Northern Soul dancers and the Yorkshire Border Morris dancers, known as Boggarts Breakfast, scheduled for the fug of the day after.
“The dance-off is going to be in the sports hall,” says Alison Kershaw, the curator of a programme which also includes an opening performance lecture on Latin and black American music and culture in Manchester, a giant participative drawing-to-music performance, avant-garde short films and daily performances by Another Adele, a performance artist who will reflect on growing up with the Davids Cassidy, Essex, Bowie and Byrne.

“It’s in the second-class males’ pool which is covered over with a dancefloor that was used from the early days of the Baths, really.

“They used to have a dancefloor there, and in about the late 80s, when they did some renovations on the pool and converted it into a sports hall, they used the old dancefloor. So it’s actually a sprung dancefloor.

“William Titley, the artist who’s going to be making work during the all-nighter, is going to have some microphones placed underneath the floor and make recordings at various stages through the night.

“A big part of his project is the recorded soul archive, so he’s working with Lancashire libraries and he’s creating this northern soul archive of tickets and record sleeves, jackets, badges, tickets and posters and stuff.

“We’re actively inviting people who come along to bring anything to be photographed and added to the digital archive.”

Titley, who will be displaying his vast array of Northern Soul memorabilia during the festival, sparked the all-nighter idea.

“He was working with older and younger dancers in Lancashire,” says Kershaw. “It sounded really exciting.

“I said, ‘wouldn’t it be amazing to do a showcase at the end and have an all-nighter at Victoria Baths?'”

The choice of venue might seem unusual had Kershaw not spent the past 16 years getting to know the Baths.

A photo of a set of large ancient brown brick victorian baths with a green lawn
© Courtesy Un-Rest Festival
“We’ve been doing contemporary art events in there since about 1998. Over that time I’ve seen this idea of artists and heritage emerge, so you’ve got things like the Tatton Park Biennial and there’s a whole English Heritage contemporary art thing.

“It’s become very, very common and I think in a way we pioneered that idea of artists working in heritage buildings or derelict spaces a little bit.

“It just came from artists needing space in the city and somewhere to put on their own artist-led projects.

“The Victoria Baths were extremely welcoming to that. They saw it as a way of bringing life to the building and sort of re-activating the space with something positive rather than just the campaign to save it. We could use it for something very positive, and that’s kind of continued over the years.”

The “ornate nature” of a building once used to hone synchronized swimming talents is “always going to compete” with artists, admits Kershaw, whose aim is to make work fit in a way which “works with it or in opposition to it.”

“I began to think about how people had used Northern Soul at a time of economic decline and how that had been a kind of escape, of self-expression, a way of edging yourself out of that very ordinary situation and having another kind of life you could shine in.

“From there I just began to think about other contemporary artists that were maybe dealing with how people use their bodies from a difficult place, whether that be emotional, social or economic situations, where you’ve literally got nothing but your body to use for self-expression and to create some sort of change in your life.

“It’s kind of gone from there. I’ve been working with an artist called Humberto Vélez. A piece of his work sprang to mind called The Last Builder.

“It’s about an ageing bodybuilder and it’s a really beautiful film of this old guy in his 70s on a beach in Gran Canaria.

“He’s displaying his bodybuilding poses. That’s almost like an extreme opposite, but in a way it’s the same – people using their physical discipline and training themselves and learning, improving their technique, if you like, with their body.

“And obviously with Victoria Baths we’ve got the whole idea of physical discipline and exercise and dance, because the Baths were always a dance venue as well as a place for swimming and sport.” Those last two might no longer be on the agenda, but the dancefloor remains immortal.

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