This image of Hulme is so powerful. I worked at MMU last year. I got involved in events for students around the official opening of the new Birley Building in Hulme. I offered a short talk about Epping Walk Bridge, next to the Birley Campus. This bridge was the location of a very iconic picture of the Manchester band Joy Division, which was taken in 1979, by the photographer Kevin Cummins, for the New Musical Express.
I tried to pull people into the talk via the musical history of the bridge. But I also wanted to explore a constantly changing Manchester, through this single location, for new students. I only had one taker, but he was a happy customer, so it was worth it.
The bridge is located near to where T.J. Davidson’s rehearsal studios used to stand, which Joy Division used regularly. Those rehearsal studios were where the band shot the video for ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’. Nearby is Royce Road, where the Russell Club, home of Tony Wilson’s night ‘The Factory’ used to stand. This is where Joy Division launched their career. The studio and the Russell Club – like much of the landscape in this slide – have both been demolished. The bridge is the only thing that remains in the area. In 2010 it was suggested that the bridge be renamed The Ian Curtis Bridge. The singer committed suicide in 1980.
The Hulme Crescents have also been demolished. Some of the old flats in the area can still be seen in the Kevin Cummins shot. The aesthetics of the Cummins photograph show the band, and Manchester, as bleak. The photograph has a cold war feel to it, suggesting a darker, northern English version of the European motorways of Kraftwerk’s ‘Autobahn’.
There’s a strong connotation of post-war Europe to this Hulme slide too, but also, I think, post-bomb Hiroshima. If Epping Walk Bridge speaks to the idea that Manchester is now a post-industrial, cold war city, an idea that has become a lightweight trope in many ways, precisely through the simplistic idea of Joy Division as a ‘post-industrial band’, this image of Hulme speaks to the violence of capitalist accumulation. It is a direct map of Neil Smith’s concepts of the ‘revanchist city’ and ‘uneven development’: MMU grabs land in Hulme, and wins new build funding. It sells its aesthetically and historically attractive campus in Didsbury, a place now gentrified, and shifts into this zone of former clearances. It employs McAlpine Civil Engineering to create the new campus, a company ironically begun by ‘Concrete Bob’, Robert McAlpine. The obsessive narratives about what could or couldn’t be done with the ‘high quality’ concrete in Birley seem like a strange reflection of the anti-modernist narratives against the use of raw concrete, narratives which partly cleared the way for the new building.
Looking even further back, it starts to become tempting to claim that history repeats itself. Because a series of terraces designated as slums were flattened in order to create the Crescents, during the post-war concensus around housing and modernist urbanism. These cleared terraces are often still referred to as ‘back-to-backs’, though this is a myth. The Cresents themselves were then designated as places of deviance and criminality, in their own turn, and flattened. This does have a long and sadly rich history, most obviously to be found in Engels’ Conditions of the Working Class in England. I wrote a piece with Mark Rainey recently, on how the new Co-op building and Angel Meadow, the site of some of Engels’ most reviled slums, can be explored in similar ways to this Hulme slide:
Again, the cliches tend to cover the complexity, but the start date of postmodernism, according to Charles Jencks, is very precise. He says that the dynamiting of the Pruitt-Igoe housing estate in St. Louis, USA, at 3pm on March 16, 1972, marks the end of the modernist project. If you take Jencks at his word – I’m not saying that I do – I only lived for two months and 22 days in modernity, albeit completely unaware of the fact. The point I am making is that The Crescents were part of a much larger narrative of the ‘failure’ of modernism, and via its detractors, of municipal socialism, which led to the dynamiting of Pruitt-Igoe. The postmodern ‘play’ which characterised Factory Records, then, could be said to begin with these violent clearances. Clearances to break though into new forms of capital accumulation, which always need their symbolic, cultural components. The cogs and gears of what we now call ‘gentrification’.
This scanned, faded slide gives a slightly nostalgic, melancholic cast to Hulme. Pale faded greens seem to plug the image into the currently fashionable zone of ‘Hauntology’, a critical-theoretical strand taken from Derrida, which has also become popularised, via bands like The Mount Vernon Arts Lab – who I designed for – and the Ghost Box record label. All of this, in turn, feeds into a John Wyndhamesque sense of a comforting future dystopia.
The most disturbing thing though, for me, about Day of the Triffids, is how guiltily attractive the idea of a cleared space is. I get a sense of that in this image. If ‘starting again’ in a post-apocalyptic fantasy does seem desirable, it is surely desirable for individuals who wish to be ostentatiously at liberty, at the expense of, essentially, the victims of the disaster that liberated them. Hauntology often conceals this, it is one of its many dirty, dodgy secrets. But this image of Hulme draws me back to the real issues I think we should all be concerned with, and they are old questions: How should we live? How should we organise? What do we need to do in order to reproduce the future? Under all of these concerns lies the idea that one might need to clear away small or very large parts of the past, in order to ‘progress’ into the future. This image is an incredible cipher for that idea, with all its histories, problems, acute ethical anxieties, and almost inevitable abuses.
I think the Birley site, and this image, speak of the individual subsumed. They don’t really talk to me about a ‘mass’ ravaged by capitalism. Walk from Oxford Road through the MMU campus at All Saints. Go West. A sign under a campus archway states ‘No Public Access’ on the Hulme side, but this is not repeated on the student side, the Oxford Road side. There is much to be made of this, and Birley itself is a self-sufficient island of high-tech energy production, with its own heat pumps and power. Only a little gas is piped in. This is more than a metaphor: Birley mirrors the ways in which the public and private have moved in this era more widely, and not just in this area.
This image of Hulme, and the Cummins image, in retrospect, seem to premonitor our current landscapes. Our hyper-real pornographic spectacles of consumer individualism, something that can be traced back to the point when the Industrial Revolution had to invent, through sheer seat-of-the-trousers necessity, ‘Manchester Capitalism’. The Cummins image seemed to want to tell us that the money and will of industrialism has thawed. But its attack was double-edged. On one hand it is deeply, morbidly mournful, and yet on the other it seems highly critical of socialist mass planning. This image is too.
None of this is just incidental detail. This worn photograph of an ‘atomised’ and atomising landscape, in a city that contributed a great deal to the development of the atom bomb, is for me also a cipher for atomised individualism. We may all think we are individuals now, but that illusion itself is mass. Deleuze suggested that institutions of control and biopower, the factory, prison and hospital, are finished. It is only ‘a matter of time’ before they wither and vanish. He described the production of the ‘dividual’ in this context. As he explained it, the mass-individual binary is breaking down into a kind of tyranny of multiplicity. Control is always short-term, but without end.
Man (sic) is no longer ‘enclosed’, but remains indebted. Here is a rare, beautiful and terrible trace of the continuation of that idea in physical form.
Steve Hanson is the author of Small Towns, Austere Times (Zero Books).