Market Square, Northampton
23 July – 1 August 2010
Northampton’s historic Market Square, still one of the largest in England, dates back to 1235 when King Henry III transferred the selling of local goods to the Square. It’s chequered history has been intrinsically linked to commerce ever since.
In 1724, nearly 50 years after Northampton’s own Great Fire and a loss of over 600 buildings, Daniel Defoe still described the area as “the handsomest and best built town in all this part of England” .
Yet the Industrial Revolution saw the loss of many of the brick and stone buildings Defoe so admired. This trend continued when in 1960 the fifteenth century coaching inn known as the Peacock Hotel was demolished along with the New Theatre in Abington Street, which was to be replaced by a supermarket.
Remarkably the market has continued to this day despite, in the early nineties, Northampton Borough Council taking over £1,000,000 a year in rent from the market traders, with little of it ever invested in the future of the Square.
The gradual colonisation of the marketplace by chain stores has continued where today it’s status as a clone town  stands almost complete, with the complimentary fountain added for good measure.
The decision to hold BLINK, a week-long Arts Festival consisting of a series of artist led interventions on the Square, would suggest an opportunity to be mindful of this history, an antidote to the bland corporatisation, and a recognition of the fiscal stimulus that culture can bring to an area.
Laura Ellen Bacon’s installation, a collaboration with sculptor Michael Johnson, attempts to link the interior of the square to the buildings on the perimeter. A woven metal and polypropylene form sprouting from the side of a boundary building, it’s sculpted partner emerging in the very centre of the Market Square.
Bacon maintains her work is always site specific, “each commission is only possible after she has seen and studied the site to get a feel for the place” . Unlike some of her previous work, beautiful installations in sites such as Newstead Abbey and Somerset House, this intervention feels more intrusive than responsive.
The use of blue ribbon to distinguish from the red-topped market stalls betrays any social response in favour of an aesthetic one; a decision which resulted in a less than complimentary tribute piece by a group of market traders, wheeled out on the night of the festival launch, rather than any consideration of the nuances of Bacon’s woven forms. In defence of the Artist this had more to do with the ongoing vendetta the Borough Council have towards the market traders, and the decision to uproot several stalls in the heart of the marketplace to accommodate the sculpture, completely at odds with the piece’s title, The Village Green Preservation Society.
Similar criticism can not be levelled at Simon Hasan. Immersing himself in the town’s rich leather-working industry, many hours of research at Northampton’s Museum of Leather Craft and local liveries resulted in a shift from the promised Pimp My Hide to the far less clumsily titled Industrial Makeshift.
Hasan has used the medieval leather-working technique of Cuir Bouilli (Boiled Leather) to produce over 400 handcrafted versions of mass produced archetypes such as Coca Cola bottles. This work is a deliberate nod to William Morris’ Makeshift, a speech delivered in industrial Manchester at the end of the nineteenth century, disparaging of the unsatisfactory nature of mass-produced goods. Morris would have been equally critical of the current treatment of Northampton’s market traders, as would Charles Bradlaugh, a local Member of Parliament and socialist contemporary of Morris.
Hasan is sensitive to these issues, presenting these exquisite objects for sale in a vending machine on the Market Square, proceeds of which will be donated to the Northampton Market Traders Association. At only £3 per item, they are beautifully crafted objects with an intriguing hardened leather finish and accompanying aroma quickly being replaced in these parts by Subways and Burger Kings. The embossed signature on each item is disappointingly crude but this should not prevent them selling out at a pace.
Simon Heijdens intervention, a digital projection cast across the facades of several of the perimeter buildings suggests a series of organic forms growing amongst the footfall. This is not a predetermined animation but a digital seed planted in the Square, responding to actual wind, sun and rain.
The code necessary to generate this non-intrusive intervention is mind blowing. What Morris would have made of this makeshift is unclear, but certainly his Pre-Raphaelite associate Ruskin would have praised how much time Heijdens must have spent looking at nature in order to make the work so convincing. As the wind blows, so the leaves sway. It is only when in particularly close proximity to the work that the pixilation of the projected image makes suspension of disbelief remotely difficult.
Under the terms of a charter dating back to 1189, Northampton’s Market Square may be used as a forum for political discussion and free speech after 6:30 in the evenings . This might explain the decision to programme Heijdens’ work in the Square which is viewable each evening from dusk.
Heijdens comments “While the trees on the streets are no longer nature but carefully controlled and managed objects, the wind that is moving its branches still is” . As we are increasingly manipulated by town planners and supermarket layouts, Heijdens’ work is a gentle reminder of the serendipity to be found in the marketplace. Responding to passers by, Heijdens’ digital seeds pollinate the Square revealing the spontaneous paths of desire the local public tread.
Also launched as part of the festival is Jo Fairfax’s Square Light, a permanent lighting and projection scheme. Unfortunately Fairfax’s intention to illuminate the circumference of the Square and compliment the design of the surrounding buildings is far less well realised than Heijdens temporary intervention. The lighting scheme with a seasonal colour palette that changes each hour so far appears gaudy and homogenised, as if spewed forth from the nondescript fountain like it was anywhere in the country.
Fairfax does make an attempt to connect to the elements that make the Market Square distinctive by projecting an archival image of the old Peacock Hotel onto its current reincarnation, Peacock Place. This is brought to life as a ghostly film complete with dancing George Bernard Shaw and Francis Crick – the unlikely pairing both with a connection to the town. One wonders that this conceptual muddle might be resolved as a more successful standalone work in it’s own right, without the non-distinct lighting scheme.
Various lighting effects and dance movements by the unlikely collaborators are allegedly employed on special anniversaries, whereas the accompanying light scheme is programmed so no two hours are the same throughout the year. This is an attempt to both connect the buildings to the people in the Square each day and encourage the public to keep returning to see the changes. Whether the present hook is sufficient in achieving these aims remains to be seen. A thriving market place would surely achieve the same ends?
There is so much more to life than money and sometimes we need Art to remind us of this. There is some good Art on display here but the heavy-handed approach by Northampton Borough Council in forcing a homogenised ideal of culture fails both the Artists and the public.
1 – Town Centre Commission, Consultation with the Market Traders, Northampton Borough Council, 2006.
2 – The Clone Town Britain Survey is designed by nef to determine whether a town is a Clone Town (0 to 25) indistinguishable from dozens of others around the country; or a genuine Home Town (35-60) that is distinctive and recognisable as a unique place. Without the market, Northampton’s Market Square falls from a score of 38 to just 14.
3 – Bacon, L. E., 2010. Into The Weave: with an introduction by Mary Butcher and an essay by David White, p9
4 – Ibid. Town Centre Commission (2006)
5 – BLINK publicity material, 2010
First published on on a-n, 27 July 2010, and was the result of an Interface Bursary Partnership