Commissioning CoCo

CoCo and Community

I was very lucky in my choice of my first home away from home.  When I left home for University in Manchester I chose an unusual hall of residence.  Known as the Congregation College then (or CoCo to the inhabitants) it was a 100-bedroom college, about 20 of which were taken up by congregationalist ministers in training, and the other 80 bedrooms were available for students at the university.  CoCo was different to other halls in two key ways: you were allowed to stay for more than one year – in fact, as long as you wanted; and there was no alcohol allowed on the premises.  I know that the latter may seem like an odd characteristic of a university hall but it did mean that drinking (which was indeed a part of university life) was a weekend exceptional activity off the premises rather than the default each evening.  The fact that people stayed there for some time meant that there was continuity from year to year and a sense of community which was rather lovely.  When people talk about strong community I can judge it against two personal benchmarks – a South Wales mining village, and CoCo.  It’s rare that professed “strong communities” can stand that comparison, and I’m lucky to have experienced two in my life, and at formative stages at that.  I suspect that my communitarian tendencies were deeply shaped by these experiences.

Tim Garner and Manchester

I have written elsewhere about discovering the artworks of Tim Garner, and their resonance with me.  To quote some passages from that blog

Tim’s work is fascinating…For me the dominant theme is of transition. His works are post industrial but they don’t just think about the past – they also look to a future. One picture in particular exemplified this for me – it is called Autumn Irwell.


In that blog I wrote

A little about Tim – Tim is my age – middle age (slight clenching of teeth there). Like me, Tim grew up in the country and came to Manchester later. We both moved away from Manchester and the occasional returns expose and underline the enormous changes that have happened in that city over the last three decades. Manchester is reinventing itself, just as, I am beginning to see, people do too.

For me, this is a mid-life picture. It is a picture that illustrates a complex past of many changes, and yet still a future, albeit uncertain.

I have enjoyed watching Tim’s work evolve since, and I was thinking about buying another piece, another view of Manchester and reflecting on places in Manchester that mean a lot to me.  I enquired if he had ever painted CoCo – he hadn’t, and that’s where the idea of commissioning him to do just that came from.

Commissioning CoCo

My visits to Manchester tend to revolve around Local Government Conferences, and it was during the Cipfa conference that I went along to the Artzu Gallery to discuss the commissioning and was delighted to find that I was able to talk to Tim himself.


We also looked at some of his more recent works, and he was moving away from the rather dry almost pastel-like finish to works such as Irwell to deeply blue, glossy and rich colours, with the raised surface paints more likely to be splashes of gold than deep dark autumnal reds.

We discussed the place and what it meant to me, and some of the transitional aspects which I will discuss later.  We also discussed the challenge of representing what is actually a very wide building, meaningfully.  I was very keen that we show the building from one side as a means to do this.  Tim has been painting larger canvasses recently and he was keen to give this one some space.  The latter made me slightly nervous as my available hanging space is rather modest.

Tim went away to look at the College and came up with some ideas – the view from the side didn’t work, and he came up with a clever way of doing a view from the front, representing the essence of the college rather than attempting to render it exactly.

Three months later, (at the National Children’s and Adults Services Conference) I was able to get along to the gallery to see the just finished work.  And I was delighted.

The Picture

ARTZU_Garner_ Lancashire Independent_89 x 169cm.jpgLancashire Independent, Tim Garner (2017), 89x169cm

The first thought on seeing this picture is that it’s big!  I asked that the height be the same as the height of Autumn Irwell as they will be hung near each other and so the width makes this a large piece – it is hard to comprehend in one look – which is exactly also true of the building itself – you have to let detail and structure emerge over examination.

The composition is very clever, if you look at a photo of the building you will appreciate the challenge.


Even the photo in this postcard has to truncate the end of the wings.

It is typical of Tim’s current style with bright rich colours, and the trees in particular are beautifully evoked.  I really enjoyed that despite being a big city the place I was living in had big grounds.  I would walk around those grounds on the evening before exams, and it was usually in those spring walks that the various elements of the mathematical subjects I was studying fell into place, the incredible beauty of maths and the beauty of nature at the same time.  I remember CoCo in the spring, in the bright sunshine of the picture.  I tended to spend the Manchester winters warmly inside!

I mentioned earlier that one of the things I enjoy about Tim’s works is the theme of transition and time, and that may be less obviously apparent in the picture, but as I discussed with Tim the building itself tells a story over time.  Founded as the Lancashire Independent College it deliberately copied the “Oxbridge” style in reaction to the fact that non-conformist minsters were quite literally not allowed in the Oxbridge Colleges.

As a Congregational College it lasted for 140 years, before closing down, somewhat tragically for me, at the end of my second year at university – I would have loved to spend my entire three years there.  The building became the training college for the GMB Union (I suspect a bar appeared at that point), but more recently the college occupies a special place and tells a very symbolic story about Manchester, and about our country – it is now the British Muslim Heritage Centre. and I am told by those who visit that it is once again a centre of community life – not housing an internal community but reaching out into the wider city, which is rather satisfactory.

As such, I think it stands with Tim’s other work in telling the story of Manchester, and a story of change and rebirth, and redefined community.






Tim Garner’s Autumn Irwell – Manchester Mid-Life

On a recent visit to Manchester I dropped in to the ARTZU Gallery and discovered an artist called Tim Garner.

Tim’s work is fascinating. His most recent work in and around Manchester consists of large photographs painted over to bring out relevant effects. For me the dominant theme is of transition. His works are post industrial but they don’t just think about the past – they also look to a future. One picture in particular exemplified this for me – it is called Autumn Irwell.


Autumn Irwell differs from some of Tim’s other work in that it is less obviously “post industrial” – other works by him show disused mills, warehouses and so on. However this is most definitely post industrial – the river itself is and was navigable and part of what gave Manchester the ability to import raw materials and distribute finished goods. It also contains within it the LS Lowry Luxury Hotel. I’m not sure I can conceive of a more post-industrial concept than is contained in the phrase “LS Lowry Luxury Hotel”.

A little about Tim – Tim is my age – middle age (slight clenching of teeth there). Like me, Tim grew up in the country and came to Manchester later. We both moved away from Manchester and the occasional returns expose and underline the enormous changes that have happened in that city over the last three decades. Manchester is reinventing itself, just as, I am beginning to see, people do too.

For me, this is a mid-life picture. It is a picture that illustrates a complex past of many changes, and yet still a future, albeit uncertain. This picture reeks with symbolism of time: a river, a bridge, a time of day, and a specific season – and that season is of course Autumn. As with Tim’s other works this is paint layered onto a photo – but the aspect ratio of the photo is that of a snapshot, a polaroid – a point in time.

The bridge – which appears more sharply in the original than it does in reproduction – is a high tech, computer designed suspension bridge. We are invited to read left to right – the support member is on the left – in the past – and it reaches out across the river – the landing point is indistinct. But the sun is shining onto the future bank of the river.

I think that a meaningful work of art is like a poem – it gives you different things when you go back to it, and gives different things at different ages. But just as I like the poetry of Martin Farley because he and I are similar ages and have similar childhood backgrounds, I feel that I can resonate with the work of Tim Garner – even if I am getting things out of it which he didn’t intend to put in! Anyway, in the musings of a day off, this is what I get from this picture, today – my snaphot.


{Blog updated December 2017 to reflect that the artist/gallery have since changed the spelling from Irewell to Irwell on all of Tim’s works with that name in them}

Art and Science

More than a decade ago I had a great time studying Art History at the Courtauld Institute for a postgrad diploma career break year.  My “extended essay” was entitled From Science to Art: The Influence on Cubism of ideas of the Fourth Dimension and Non-Euclidean Geometry (so there).

Re-reading it recently, I realised that the concluding paragraphs said something that lingers with me about the relationship between art and science, and an earlier part of the essay describes a framework for thinking about science in art which also stands the test of time, in my head (!),   and justifies me in my continuing belief that art has barely come close to scratching the beauty of science – the only time I can see that it has done, it appears to be accidental.  Anyway, I’m turning those two parts into a  blog here, now.  For anyone remotely interested I’ve put the whole essay up here.


A Framework for the Influence of Science on Art

It is useful to classify the ways in which Art can utilise the theory and practice of Science into four types: materials, images, ideas and insights.


The first way in which Science influences Art is in providing materials for use.  The development of coloured pigments and stable media, and technologies for reproduction without the need for expedients such as woodblock carving have facilitated the creation and development of art.  I shall not discuss this further here as the mathematical ideas under discussion in this essay do not result in new materials.  However, this category is a key element of a generic framework, as is illustrated each time an artist-in-residence at a scientific institution uses the materials of Science as a part of their work[1].


The next way in which artists can be influenced by Science is by a borrowing of the images of Science.  The fascination of artists for scientific discoveries of the human body was demonstrated recently by the exhibition Spectacular Bodies[2], for example.  Images of the graphical displays from particle accelerator experiments and photographs of cells have been modified and displayed, by artists, as artworks – for example Sandra McQueen’s Fragment of the Organ of Corti, 1994 (Figure 1).


Figure 1.  Microscope slide of a fragment of the organ of Corti – a sensory cell in the ear (left) with S. McQueen, Fragment of the Organ of Corti, 1994, vitreous enamel on copper (right).

Science can add to the repertoire of images, deployed as aesthetic objects in their own right.   Where Science adds to the repertoire of concepts deployed by Art, we encounter one of the last two types of influence: ideas or insight.


Discoveries of science often, through popularisation, enter the common vocabulary as metaphors or analogies.  Chaos Theory’s description of a butterfly’s wing beat causing a hurricane on the other side of the world has entered the common vocabulary as an example of the interconnectedness of things, such as global stock exchanges[3].  In fact, in Chaos theory the butterfly’s wing beat was invoked to illustrate the extreme sensitivity of dynamic systems to their initial conditions – a different point than that of interconnectedness.  This example illustrates the fact that concepts, particularly in the popularisation of science, may stray some way from the scientific point originally being illustrated.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, but such straying is highly relevant to Cubism, as we see later.

Further, an issue common to Chaos Theory, Catastrophe Theory, Complexity Theory, and even Relativity Theory is that the common understanding of the theory is unduly influenced by the English word used imperfectly to describe it.  We need to remain conscious that the idea deployed is the idea of common understanding, often re-interpreted a number of times, rather than necessarily endowing the validity of the scientific idea onto the result because we happen to use the same label[4].

I have called this category “idea” for want of a better word.  In using the term in this essay I need to exclude one possible interpretation of the “idea of science” from this category – the interpretation where the true concept of the science is deployed.  To distinguish it from the imperfectly applied idea as presented in this category, I call this “insight”.


The final way in which science can influence art is where the art exhibits a genuine scientific insight.  Simon Patterson’s Untitled of 1996 (Figure 2) depicts a periodic table of the elements with conventional symbols but with element names replaced by cosmological entities, Beryllium (Be) is replaced by Betelgeuse, for example.  This expresses a scientific insight of the connection between the very small and large, and the fact that, despite the enormous scale of the universe, it is all made of the same constituents[5].  It is interesting that this artwork is popular with scientists.  Their aesthetic response is not formalist or art-historical, it is a science-aesthetic response, and I return to this idea in my conclusion.


Figure 2.  S. Patterson, Untitled, 1996

[1] For example, I recall an artist-in-residence at the European Centre for Nuclear Research (CERN) speaking at a public meeting and telling of how he used in his sculpture a new metal alloy originally developed for use as a component of scientific apparatus.

[2] Spectacular Bodies: The Art and Science of the Human Body from Leonardo to Now, Hayward Gallery, 2000-1, exh. cat. ed. M. Kemp and M. Wallace

[3] For example, A. Wileman, ‘Butterflies in Bangkok’, Management Today, May 2001, p. 91.

[4] Numerous examples of where this semantic misunderstanding has occurred for even quite highly-regarded thinkers are listed in A. Sokal and J. Bricmont, Intellectual Impostures, Profile, 1998.

[5] There is evidence to suggest that this specific insight was accidental, rather than intentional: for example, Patterson has also produced works based on the periodic table where the element names are replaced by names of film stars.  In his juxtapositions of commonplace frameworks with unusual elements Patterson provokes many interesting interpretations and reactions.


Reflections on the Science/Art Interface

Science and Art are both disciplines which depend heavily on an aesthetic sense, and which create constructs of enormous beauty.  This is not immediately obvious to many, especially in the case of Science.  However, it is worth remembering that this is not obvious to many when applied to art also – particularly non-representative, or “difficult” art such as Cubist art.  Science, and much art, require for their appreciation a patient accumulation of ideas and insights, expressed in new vocabularies.  As a traveller in the foothills of both summits, occasionally glimpsing the wonders of a higher part of the mountain, I know that there is much to be gained from both disciplines.

There is an attraction, therefore, to situations where Science and Art seem to have combined in some way.  Can such combinations create a greater beauty than either discipline alone?  One such area of apparent combination {Picasso, cubism, non-euclidean geometry – Ed} has been considered in this essay.  What can we learn from this case?

Firstly, it is clear that the impact of this science on this art is relatively peripheral – it was not a central driver for the development of Cubism.  This is not a case where the art has captured scientific beauty to a great extent.  However, an appreciation of the science context augments appreciation of the art.  There are examples where the exact reverse of this situation is true, ie of science-aesthetically wonderful works which are augmented by a small amount of artistic input[1].

Secondly, the role of Princet is important.  It is increasingly common for workplaces and science institutions to have poets-, or artists-, in-residence.  Princet was a “mathematician in residence” for the bande a Picasso.  This may be an idea that has wider applicability – where are the interpreters of the wonders of Science and Mathematics for the artists of today?

Finally, I conjecture that there is an as-yet unrealised deep beauty from great art that utilises the insights (rather than just images, or analogies) of great science.  The conceptual, rather than perceptual, nature of modern art seems key to this, however it may not be possible – the beauty in Science may be inexpressible in the language of Art.  What I am seeking may be analogous to someone who appreciating the literature of his own language, and having striven to become fluent in another language the better to read the literature of that language, requests that poems be written combining both languages to achieve a higher beauty than can be expressed in either language alone.

Yet I feel that the twin summits of Art and Science, so enormous when seen from the foothills, are tiny compared to the contexts they share.  Specifically, they exist in a shared universe, share a common humanity to discover and appreciate them, and they share a common aesthetically driven approach in their development.  I am reminded of a work by Henry Moore (Figure 11).  To me the strong outer structure of this work symbolises the profound underlying connection between the fields of human endeavour, with the two small constructions, representing Art and Science, coming from what appear to be opposite sides, and painfully stretching across the interior space without touching.  If only we could connect these beautiful entities.  What a void we could fill.  What surprises we might find.


moore oval

Figure 11.  H. Moore, Oval with Points, 1970

[1] I think here of the production of fractal visual images of the Mandelbrot set and other entities uncovered by studying the rate of convergence of simple functions in the complex plane.  The level of appreciation of such items is hugely enhanced by an understanding of the underlying mathematical process.  The contribution of artists to this work has been in providing aesthetically appealing colour schemes for the display of such images – a relatively small artistic contribution in this case.

What is Art?

10 years ago, as a student at the Courtauld, I wondered about this, and wrote …

I haven’t a clue what is and isn’t art. If the following is art, then it’s art. I can’t do art with my hands, but some of the following may be art – not least because some of the things I used to have here I have subsequently discovered have actually been done already, and then considered art!

Perhaps what follows is bad poetry instead of bad art!


18K (1)

18,000 NatWest Logos

18K (2)

18,000 Sad faces (Wingdings capital “L”) printed out

(The takeover of NatWest, or its defence attempt, were going to lead to 18,000 redundancies)



A plastic sphere which has the volume

of all of the breath exhaled

by a person

during their lifetime

(diameter approx 70m)

Holocaust Memorial

A 1m x 6m ‘landscape’ arrangement of 1mm ruled squared paper with a supply of pencils, sharpeners, a bin and clear plastic bin liners to hold the pencil shavings.

Notice next to strip reads:


Take a pencil.

If necessary sharpen it to a fine point.

Carefully shade one of the squares for yourself, then shade one for each member of your immediate family and your closest friend. They are not allowed to touch. Resharpen your pencil when you need to.


When a bin liner becomes full of pencil shavings it should be tied up, placed near the work, and not removed.


The following items joined by individual chain links:

An animal’s thigh bone

A clay figure

A piece of meccano

A piece of Fisher Technik

A module of electronic lego

Flicknife Skinhead

2 second movie of a Mercedes ignition key (c. 1997) being opened.



“All artworks are by Picasso unless otherwise stated”

How Sherlock Survives

The person that falls is not Moriarty’s dead body.  It is clear that the person falling is both (a) Sherlock and (b) moving (which rules out the cunning mask hypothesis)

As Watson runs around the corner (and gets knocked over (deliberately) to stop him getting too close) we see a lorry with a green and white cover on it. This lorry has a crash mat on it which Sherlock jumps onto. He then jumps from this onto the pavement and uses a blood bag (possibly provided by Molly) to make his injury seem bad. He is taken into the hospital and Molly arranges a replacement body which is buried.

It is notable that Sherlock commands Watson to “go back” and “stay where he is” which means that Watson is behind a lower building that conceals the actual point of impact.

It is also noteworthy that Moriarty talks about Sherlock heading for a fall, but that Sherlock chooses the venue for the denoument as being as specific high place, which gives him the opportunity to arrange the lorry with the crash mat in anticipation of this.


I am not sure, however, that Moriarty is dead.

Holiday Notes

A wonderful week in San Francisco followed by an awe-inspiring week in Arizona, and then a longer spell at an airport hotel in Los Angeles waiting to come home….

A mixed bag of thoughts that struck me at various points and which I feel oddly compelled to scatter:
1.  San Francisco is a friendly and attractive mechanism for converting sourdough bread into calf muscles.

2.  Starfish, which look incredibly inert from above are very active when you see them from underneath. Jellyfish are beautiful and deeply alien.

3.  California has a curious relationship with climate change epitomised  by the california academy of sciences. A very modern building with a  green “living roof”, strident displays warning of climate change – and gas patio heaters outside the cafe!

4.  Route 66 in Arizona has a disgraceful amount of litter by the side of it.  But the coincidence of coming into Seligman just as the Cars, the Motion Picture Soundtrack got to Our Town was just perfect, and touching.

5a. The Grand Canyon is both.

5b. The first time I saw the Grand Canyon it was so big and unusual that I couldn’t initially process it as a 3D image – it looked painted on.  When I did adjust for the diminished parallax it was truly awe-inspiring.  Definitely didn’t disappoint.  Gazing at its incessant detail I was reminded of the moment in September 1986 when I first saw Mandelbrot set images.  In a reflective moment of thinking how a river had carved this over millions of years I suddenly realised that it was less than 2% of the age of the Earth and had a “total perspective vortex” moment.

5c. There are worse places to be than the Grand Canyon at sunset.

6.  On a train journey a fellow passenger was wearing a baseball cap with the legend “World War 2 Veteran.  Battle of the Bulge” and staff members on the train and others would occasionally say to him “thank you for your service”.  I really can’t get my head straight on what I think about this.

7.  Arizona is a lot greener than I expected, though coming back to the UK I thought my eyes had a different colour filter on.  Also struck by how colourful UK currency is!

8.  On the subject of green, Wrigleys spearmint gum has changed colour since I was a boy, although I suppose it may always have been green in the US.

9.  Geology is much more interesting when its more extreme aspects are in your face or under your feet (or in the atmosphere potentially stopping you from getting home).

10.  Hypothesis: tessellated triangles are used for decoration by all cultures – human and otherwise!

11.  The paintings that captured my attention were this one and this one (why all the jugs, pots and other receptacles – must look into the symbolism of that).

12.  Neuroscience’s application to public policy is almost certainly at the level of metaphor or a repetition of evolution-based thinking rather than a direct insight. The possible exception being in relation to education policy.

13.  Disneyland broke through my cynical carapace within the first 100 seconds, but fortunately the omnipresence of retail helped me to reassemble it before we left.

14. United Airlines customer service is very good – even under pressure.

Re-energised in Gateshead

In Gateshead this week for the first alumni conference for the National Graduate Development Programmme for Local Government (Veredus is a sponsor).  Some excellent speakers – great for renewal of purpose, and a reminder why what we do matters.  Energised myself by the energy of the alums – they know that tough times are ahead for public spending but they’re clearly up for it.  At the end of the conference children from a local primary school came and sang “I believe” to us.  Don’t remember that happening at NatWest.

Chief Executive and Leader of Gateshead Council talked to us – their courage (esp around the arts: Angel of the North, Baltic, Sage) and local leadership shone through.  Civic pride is so much more appealing when it’s actually justified.  Wonderful.  Boat trip on the Tyne: much impressive regeneration visible.

And the Baltic, Sage and so on were very special.  I know that when the Baltic opened there was much chatter about how would they afford things to go in there, there’s only so much good art to go round, and so on.  They’ve sidestepped that with some of the most innovative and inteersting contemporary art I’ve seen for ages.  The Sarah Sze installation moved me and got me thinking more than anything I’ve seen in Tate Modern.  (On until 31 Aug – I will be back).