“We propose that what “X” is to “Y” is how “Z” was accomplished. We lack the details of a true oversight and our compunction to rely on discourse written from outside observations can be careless”.
When we reflect on history or movements that occur between eras, it is often hard to perceive the conditions that brought a particular experience, creativity, or social movement into existence. Seen from the precipice of the future, movements in any form are always calculated with hindsight, and sometimes this hindsight is very arrogant. We propose that what “X” is to “Y” is how “Z” was accomplished. We lack the details of a true oversight and our compunction to rely on discourse written from outside observations can be careless.
What we can achieve on our own must be mustered through the ambiguous collation of documents, information and points of view that surround our historic interests. We often wish to believe that there is a straight-forward and empirical way to define these eras of interest-perhaps a BBC documentary or a sprawling 3-Volume omnibus that gives a linear and exceedingly narrow scope of vision based on author’s class, race, and social mobility. In my own interests, I have a particular interest in a very small, nearly minute, but incredibly important music scene that spanned the late 70’s through to the early 1990s from a grey rust belt in England called Sheffield.
Whenever I hear a piece of music that I enjoy, even if in small segments, I am often perplexed first by how to categorize what I hear and this is a terrible orchestration of my own ego, I am aware. After I have managed to quasi-categorize that which should be left free of category, caging it if you will, my immediate next response is to ask or research where and when the piece of music was made. I want to know how it is that this music was crafted and what external realities produced the musicians making it. I want to know what the background of it is about if it lies outside of traditional qualifications that are easily imagined. We could speak of Detroit, The Stooges, civil upheaval and the decay of the American auto industry as a backdrop for their music and it makes complete sense. With Altamont, we can think of globalism’s impending boom with the Stones accidentally causing a riot during the second Summer of Hate. We can move down an era and find ourselves in Birmingham inventing Heavy Metal with Black Sabbath and finally in this condition of assumption, we can find ourselves in Sheffield, one of the homes of experimental “Synthwave” music where Cabaret Voltaire, Chris Watson, The Human League, and bands like Dachau Choir hail from. Of course, in pursuing a correlation between oppressive synthpop and Sheffield, it would be unfair to assert that musicians like guitar god Derek Bailey and Def Leopard weren’t drinking the same koolaid as it were though their output varied vastly from the former examples.
When I am trying to ascertain this perhaps banal set of inquiries on how a place can govern creative output, I am often led to a series of projections, both economic and regional. With Sheffield, so much is written about the incredible amount of progressive and influencing music that was launched there amongst the dirt and industrial debris. One can reflect on how far the tendrils of The Def Leopard have reached since inception, let alone The Human League. And yet, Def Leppard doesn’t feel like a Berris Conolly photograph on the rare chance that I listen to them. Instead, I re-direct and feel a definitive understanding to the post-war output of Dachau Choir, Molodoy and particularly Cabaret Voltaire whose early punk and electronic experimentation would pave the way for a decade of transgressive synth and industrial leanings. In this music, I can find Berris Conolly’s book Sheffield Photography 1988-1992 (Dewi Lewis) reminds me that it is possible to accumulate different types of documents to consider the whole of an era and of a place. We cannot disassociate Conolly and Chris Watson, nor do I want to. Though it can never be affirmed and there is always to be some confirmation bias in these executions, it is clear that with an economic environment like Sheffield, the need to create in such a dull, post-war uncertainty gave room to inspire. The use of synths in particular was a reflective and new modern tool, not out of sync with industrious and collapsing labor economies. The interest in technologies, post-utopian leanings of possibility conflated with mining strikes, disorder and relative poverty are just fuel for the kind of fire in the belly needed to produce such work.
“To relate Conolly’s brilliance simply to the music would be incorrect if I did not elaborate on the photographs found within the book itself. Stark, impenetrable non-human spaces fabricated by a culture of empirical decline, the photographs illustrate a Sheffield and a Britain on the cusp of a new capital hyper-modernity”.
To relate Conolly’s brilliance simply to the music would be incorrect if I did not elaborate on the photographs found within the book itself. Stark, impenetrable non-human spaces fabricated by a culture of empirical decline, the photographs illustrate a Sheffield and a Britain on the cusp of a new capital hyper-modernity. The beleaguered countryside and counties where industrious labor had pushed the industrial revolution into becoming the colonial machine that would see Britain in the world’s top position as a leader or controller of nations by the end of the second war had fallen quite hard into a position of economic and civil liberty retreat. What the 80’s seem to have represented was a point in which the counties such as South Yorkshire and its borough Sheffield could foresee was a change of value and system in the oncoming years.
We can reflect on Britain in the 70’s and 80’s as a time in which promises unfilled were left with little other response than progressive pursuits. The 90’s in particular with Tony Blair’s Happy Labor face after years of suffering the shadow of Thatcher’s cold and cruel grip would seem a relief to the decades that it proceeded. You have the feeling in Conolly’s images that he is aware of what is about to happen with new de-regulated neoliberal economy-that change and growth and progress, all tenuously linked (as we are seeing today) would grip hold of local economies in an effort to clean up or out the decay and dilapidation of cities country-wide. The focus would not be industry and labor in Britain, nor Agriculture, but banking. Conolly’s images can be thought of as a visual display of a town before transformation, before the speed of contemporary capital could grip these negligent and hidden, perhaps forgotten spaces.
In measuring Conolly’s images, it would also be unfair to not point out that the majority of the photographs factor traces of people and not the people themselves. When people do make an appearance in the book, they are almost always secondary. That is not to suggest Conolly is not interested, it is rather that he is interested more in place, if not the condition thereof. I am reminded of Michael Schmidt or Ulrich Wüst in places, but notably I am reminded of John Myers work. I can contribute some of this to the flatness, the lack of people, but also to the architecture itself both at home and abroad in Berlin. The “stacks” of housing, the semi-circular barren courtyards blockaded by the ecliptic buildings and their inhabitants. However, what Conolly does in a number of his images, like the Bechers’s as mentioned in Nicholson’s opening essay is to expand the view of Sheffield from the minute street scene into the grandiose panoramic shot from atop the hills surrounding the town. This is where Conolly differs from his contemporaries. He is interested in the small and expansive view and that which can encapsulate the idea of a place from several points of view of expanse and reduction.
To say this is a timely book would be underwhelming in the face of political pursuits and pressures now facing the country with Brexit. It has to be mentioned. What Conolly’s book suggests is less of a nostalgic look at autonomy, but rather the condition in which it was allowed to exist before Its industry fled the land. All woe aside, this is an incredible body of work no matter how timely I project its importance upon it. The images, the place and the background noise coalescing into a diplomatic, yet even collection of photographs. For amusement’s sake, I just did a Google image search of the Sheffield of now. WOW. I don’t think I could bring myself to visit it now, but will instead wallow in the grey emptiness of Conolly’s exceptional vision. This book will be on my end of year list. Highly Recommended.
(All Rights Reserved. Text @ Brad Feuerhelm. Images @ Berris Conolly.)