Why would you live here? Artists reflect on Northern life

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In our third feature on artists who call the north of England home, Letty McHugh interviews gobscure about the influence that living in the north of England has had on their artistic practice.

photo of artist wearing a coloured scarf

still from ‘touching edges of flood’. music-theatre for sage (virtual) sessions 2020

Before I started my interview with artist gobscure we had a quick chat about how the interview would work. I asked them if we could chat about life as an artist living and working in the north, but we first had to arrive at a shared definition of North.

“we have lived in north wales and in the north of scotland it’s like that doctor who quote: ‘lots of planets have a north'”. gobscure and I eventually settle on their time in the North of England. I ask what they are up to and they say, “working on blowing stuff up in leeds” and then they offer to support any events I have coming up. “not coming to heckle, but” at this point gobscure pulls a megaphone out from under their desk and then says, “but in terms of heckling megaphone ready?”

I’m leaving this exchange in, because I think it’s a really good introduction into who gobscure is as an artist, I had the same experience viewing their exhibition ‘on a rose carved in rain’ back in January. There’s a playfulness, boundaries are pushed and accepted definitions are challenged and then, just when you think you are starting to know what to expect a confetti cannon goes off or someone pulls out a megaphone.

photo of gloved hands tracing a pebble down a string of pebbles

still from ‘touching edges of flood’. music-theatre for sage (virtual) sessions 2020

I asked for a quick introduction to their work for anyone unfamiliar with it.

“the very quickest introduction is one word long it’s love&rage spell that one word. so love&rage, creative resistance asking questions. what’s become medicalised as oppositional defiance disorder and also we’re rewriting the future because there’s never just one future.”

photo of a suit with a red handkerchief in the breast pocket

‘have taken scissors to a few folks ties’ from solo exhibition in Alma Zevi gallery, Venice, 2018

I was interested in gobscure’s insight as a person whose identity has been shaped by their experiences of the North of England, but unlike me, they’ve lived in a lot of other places. After our conversation I felt that gobscure is Northern like Catherine the Great is Russian, that they arrived with northerness in their heart, 100% ready to do a coup. I wanted to know more about gobscure’s connection with the north east.

“we keep coming back to newcastle and we do, you know, we do like it here. it’s friendly, it’s human, it feels human and we feel safeish here. we feel okay here. it makes sense and the further south you go, the less sense it makes. we love the north east, newcastle, sunderland, the surrounding area. we love the unloved places that often get a kicking. teesside, stockton, north and south shields. there are so many beautiful places here, and so much of a radical history that we don’t talk about. newcastle is generally accepted as having the most beautiful georgian street in england we are officially more beautiful than bath and edinburgh we are the forgotten crown jewel.”

I feel like I should mention here that I did already know this fact, my brother lives in Newcastle and every time I visit him, he tells me that Newcastle has the longest continuous Georgian street in Europe. It’s a beautiful street, and as a former Bath resident I feel qualified to say it’s every bit as lovely as the Georgian streets in Bath. I think gobscure sums up a lot about the North in that one line, ‘forgotten crown jewel’, there is so much beauty and rich culture here, outsiders don’t expect it, and there’s no reason for them not to expect it, it’s been beautiful here for hundreds of years. The point is we need to add some plurality to the stories we tell about the North of England and the people who live here, it’s handy that we have gobscure to do that, because plurality is their whole raison d’etre.

“elif shafak is one of our favourite writers. she talks about the bisexual pen as her writing strategy. both/ and not either/ or we love plural forever. so, the north is plural, there are so many, north is so many different points on the map, which are wonderful. you could probably find that people would be able to find their version of what the north is for them, the place where they feel happy at home, safe, whatever.”

I wanted to know if gobscure felt their experiences of living in the North, or a North, their own personal North, has shaped their identity in the time they’ve been here.

“definitely. yes. the first thing is this is our sense of place anyway. so, wherever we are, we are interested in the place, but like all the different layers of stuff, whether it’s the words and the languages and the people and history or histories, mostly like the people’s history. and so a, just a sense of place is one of the things we’re really interested in, but, you know in terms of the stuff we think about, so folk tales, folk legends, poetry, the layers of history. 2000 ago and a thousand years ago. the stuff that isn’t talked, the, the more radical histories that have happened in sunderland.”

It’s not a surprise to me that gobscure is interested in the layers of a place, myths, histories, the places that truth and fiction intersect, because the layering is a constant theme in their work. They layer stories, identities and visuals, writing on top of drawing, on top of found materials, it all builds up and evolves. Next I asked whether gobscure has made anything specific pieces relating to the North.

“we made a piece of work just called north, but we underlined the or. it is a bit like with disability or queer arts or whatever. can you be both, can you be disabled and have a sexuality at all, let alone, we’re not straight. and, you know, can you talk about other stuff? let’s honour any infirmities or impairments or disabilities, lets honour queer identities, but let’s just make that part of the mix. we like we should be able to tell happy stories too or we should be able to tell the complex ones. let’s just celebrate life. kind of honour them and celebrate, rather than it’s to focus on this particular topic, this particular issue.”

A similar theme came up in my conversation with Verity Adrianna, she put it like this ‘It’s about the words they want you to put before your name. We get exhibitions of Northern artists but never Southern artists, I’ve been described as an artist who is interested in working class issues, but you never hear about artists who are interested in middle class issues.

When we deviate from the very narrow norms of the art world there is a pressure to choose a single facet of our identity, we are expected to simplify our identity down into a single word modifier that goes before our name. To me, gobscure’s work is really about resisting the pressure to tell simplified stories, about themselves or the world around them. But this is me interrupting, gobscure had another piece of work about the north.

“we decided that we were writer in residence for the a66. it was the best ever the most fun residency ever. so, you know, this whole thing of you want to talk about the north. so here’s a road from cumbria to teesside, but it’s not, it’s not, the m62 it’s not the big famous road it’s just an ordinary road. and it runs to include in penrith and appleby and scotch corner, and darlington and stockton, these are not iconic famous places, which is kind of the point. and it was just beautiful. so it is a journey and it’s a road. so getting us places that mean things to me, actually, it might be places like that or the river tees, which travels through most of the places. so, it was kind of the journey across the north to places, none of them cities, just ordinary places, but the extraordinary stuff that is going on.”

One thing I really admire about gobscure’s work is the bold sprit, I like that they do things like declare them self writer in residence of a road and don’t wait for permission. I almost apologised for putting this aside in my own article, I hope that as we work together as associate artists a bit of their boldness rubs off on me. Appropriately for someone interested in myths gobscure told me about another piece of work influenced by the north, and it took place on a mountain bathed in light like something from another world.

“go back in time to 2009, autumn of 2009 on roseberry topping on the north yorkshire moors, and the mountain, the mountain’s lit up. So there’s the mountain that’s alive with light and there are things happening at the foot and we’re performing where the footpath meets where people sort of climb the hill during the day. and of course there’s a sound scape hidden in the hedge. every time we perform there’s the sound of ravens kind of laughing and wing beats and you’re stepping out into a pool of light and talking about us and teesside and then wider general myths and legends from the north. and it’s not necessarily north of england, it can be scandinavian myths and so on. And talking about various stories of that and handing out saplings to be planted across the north. It’s called symphony of ravens.

aerial view of series of nuts in a case

gobscure, nutcase, 2017, plastic case and mixed nuts from is that a bruise or a tattoo. Alma Zevi, Venice

audiopiece commissioned for ‘is that a bruise or a tattoo?’ solo exhibition, Alma Zevi gallery, Venice

One thing I would like to challenge in this series of interviews is the idea that the North of England is the same wherever you go, just one homogenised rubbish town where the Coronation Street theme is always playing. So I’m asking everyone to tell me their best thing about the place they live, a brilliant specific to them thing that outsiders might not know about. Here’s gobscure.

“you asked what’s the best thing. And the answer is hope. So, the northeast, we are the poorest part of britain and one of the worst hit under austerity, the cuts that are still to come from brexit, whatever you think about that word, everyone is going to take a financial hit. we’re guessing that COVID is likely to mean austerity 2.0. So, it’s not like naive hope, we’re not going to use that word resilience, not naive, but this thing of hope. which is that people, however, squashed we are, however oppressed we are, we still have the skills. we still have the community and the connectivity. whether that’s within newcastle, newcastle and gateshead and sunderland, those interconnections okay, we’ve been knackered forever. we have been ignored forever, but in the northeast, we have the skills and ingenuity to rebuild. people dismissing these places are ignoring the fact we know how to rebuild and that we’re fairly determined.

This lead neatly into my final question, what are your hopes for the future of the north east?

“we hope the future can be rewritten. At the same time we hope we remember our forgotten stories. There has been yemeni and somali communities on the banks of the tyne for a hundred plus years. there’s all these hidden stories. We hope we can focus on the positive. yes, one negative thing happened. 400 positive things happened. we know how to solve problems, because we’ve had them. we have shared, we have cared. what are the things that we have? we’ve re-engineered our imagination we have the skills, we have the lived experience. let’s do the things that actually make sense and actually work for as many people as possible.”

gobscure talks a lot about the radicalism at the centre of their work. It’s easy to think that’s about the surface stuff, their maverick tendencies, unexpected confetti cannon’s and megaphones, declaring themselves writer in residence for the A66, but I think this is the part that is really radical. It’s the hope, the joy. As gobscure says, it’s easy for those things to come off as naivety but it’s so far removed from that. To see the world for what it is, to be honest about the problems that face us and acknowledge the darkness without being overwhelmed by it, to still believe in a better world and a better future, that’s kind of the definition of radicalism isn’t it?


Some exhibitions specific to work about the North

touching edges of flood. music-theatre for sage (virtual) sessions, 2020 – from 19 mins 20 seconds in.

is that a bruise or a tattoo? solo exhibition, Alma Zevi gallery, Venice, 2018

rant-north. 30′ radio broadcast for radiophrenia, 2017