They’re the places we don’t often think about. The hidden spaces between one urban metropolis and another. Vast, desolate, moody landscapes, complete with a haunting score, the sound of the land and the air, intermittently pierced by the distant vibrations of the vehicles eternally passing through.
An immersive new audio-visual film and event explores these Liverpool ‘BACKLANDS’ – The non-urban areas that surround Liverpool City Region and Greater Manchester – reconceptualising them as places of great beauty, with even greater potential. “We want to start a conversation about an industrial legacy landscape that belongs to us all,” explains ‘BACKLANDS’ director, John Ludlam. “There’s something remarkable about the sight and sound of these areas. They have a captivating story to tell.”
On the 23rd of November, from 5.30 pm to 8.30 pm, Liverpool’s Bluecoat will host the ‘Being in BACKLANDS’ event, where ticket holders can experience these unique landscapes at the premiere of an original electroacoustic work, composed collectively by James Girling, Carmel Smickersgill and Andy Scott, united for the first time, through John’s cinematic vision.
John is a Devon-based filmmaker, writer and lifelong lover of audio, with decades of storytelling experience, from writing punk rock lyrics in his youth to an extended career in journalism with Reuters Video News.
I meet John as he’s putting the final touches together, fine-tuning the edit of his film, ahead of this month’s event. I ask him to tell me more about who the audio-visual art project and film is aimed at.
“Really, it’s for everyone. Everyone who is interested in life and the places we live. We created this project and this experience because we want to share our love for this fascinating landscape. Liverpool’s industrial links to Manchester were first forged more than 250 years ago, at the start of the industrial age, but their history goes back much further than that.
“For the very first time, BACKLANDS tells this story by exploring records and interpreting the isolated and even hidden landscapes that have served as the spaces between the world’s first industrial cities of Liverpool and Manchester.
“This upcoming unique performance is a fusion of live music with a film and soundscape. The way these art forms interact simultaneously creates a novel experience of actually being in BACKLANDS.”
It’s clear from talking to John and watching him work that BACKLANDS has been a labour of love. I ask him to tell me what inspired him to help develop the art project and direct its film.
“There’s an assumption that the North West is a fully built-up region. Far from it. There are miles upon miles of hidden lands, isolated by pioneering road, rail and waterways connecting the region to the outside world. We want everyone to know about this fascinating story of BACKLANDS. It’s a great untold story and we’re still uncovering new chapters every day.”
John shows me scenes from his film, married to melodic, natural sounds of the land and a score that perfectly matches the memorably melancholic and surprisingly engaging, beautifully bleak visuals. I ask him what he hopes the project will achieve.
“We want more people to understand how BACKLANDS has come into being. And then we want to open up a broader debate about the future options for this unique landscape. What might be appropriate future land uses? Housing? Recreation? Job creation? Should we lobby for improved access? How could the land provide a solution to the climate emergency? Or should we just leave it be? Leave it to serve the natural purpose that it already has? This project is all about stimulating debate around development or conservation.”
John proudly plays me a selection of the music that’s been scored for BACKLANDS. I comment on the use of natural sounds and how the piece takes the seemingly ordinary and effortlessly makes it incredibly evocative. This leads to a discussion around Liverpool’s distinctive ‘BACKLANDS’ and the things that make it unique. John explains:
“The natural landscape here is what gives the land life. Really, it’s all about the power and enduring influence of The River Mersey and Atlantic Gateway. As you move west within the region, the river increasingly dominates the landscape. Its flanks shape how we use the land and live upon it.
“As part of our research for this project, we’ve re-mapped the North West and have identified around 25 sites that we believe possess fundamental characteristics of BACKLANDS landscapes. The three most fundamental of these are scale, a feeling of isolation and uncertainty over ownership. These themes seemed to greatly inspire all the artists involved and in way united us all.”
I ask John how the project came about. What was the inception? The creative spark that started it all.
“Founding artist is Devon-based water colourist John Skinnner, who was inspired by the landscapes of the region. When he began painting these scenes and collaborating with BACKLANDS producer Ian McCarthy (Formerly Director of Development at Liverpool Vision) it soon became clear that a much bigger project was taking shape.
“Other artists joined the association and began working in several disciplines, including myself, multidisciplinary artist Anthony Wong and celebrated musicians James Girling, Andy Scott and Carmel Smickersgill.”
I go on to ask John about the challenges of filming in these isolated areas. Were there any mishaps?
“No, fortunately, we were very lucky and well prepared. I was forced to overcome my lifelong fear of dogs though. I was chased into the sea at Littlehampton by a vicious dog when I was five and I’ve tried to steer clear of them ever since. But Anthony [Wong] appeared at Runcorn Railway Station for a dawn hike to a filming location with a surprise new team member – his beloved Bedlington Whippet cross, Scouty. Luckily, I’ve now made peace with my new colleague, we’re now firm friends!”
As I prepare to leave John’s editing suite, I ask him what’s next for the project and what he’d like to tell people considering attending the event.
“It’s incredibly special. To get the chance to show our work at Liverpool’s Bluecoat, the UK’s first arts centre and a historic icon of Liverpool’s creativity and inclusivity. Bluecoat has always worked to enrich Liverpool’s cultural and artistic life, promoting a full range of art forms to all people and re-examining life through an artistic lens. It’s the perfect venue for us to show people this project.
“But this is a beginning, not an end. BACKLANDS is a long-term art project. The association is planning new gallery shows and further films, musical events and digital experiences, as well as immersive walks in the landscape. There’s a lot in the pipeline. But this particular BACKLANDS event is a one-off live performance.
“This will never be repeated again, so I’d tell people who are interested to book now before the last places go, because it’s something we won’t be able to recapture again. A place in time with hopefully a lasting legacy, just like the BACKLANDS themselves.”
For more information and tickets visit Liverpool’s Bluecoat website HERE.