Critical Distance by Frances Williams

by | Sep 14, 2017 | Featured news | 0 comments

This post part of a series by DevoCulture in the North PGR Policy Correspondents. DevoCulture in the North aims to provide a critical space for civic, cultural and academic partners. It allows them to discuss plans and ambitions for arts and culture in times of changing governance, funding and accountability.

Critical Distance – Frances Williams

In his pre-amble to the conference, New Modes of Art Writing 1: New Media Outlets in the North, Bob Dickinson promotes the idea of smaller, better alternatives to the “bigger, glossier art publications” and their “homogenized, beautified vision of contemporary art as a global brand”. He quoted US critic, Gwen Allen, in support of this claim, saying how these offer “potential opportunities for self-reflexivity and critical distance that may help mediate our relationship to globalisations pervasive effects.”

To further explore this idea of ‘distance’ and what enables it to become usefully critical, let’s begin with the not so large distance between London and Manchester – just over two hours on the train – which has come to represent the trajectory away from the proverbial ‘centre’ of the contemporary art world to its satellite peripheries. London does not so much belong to the rest of UK as it “belongs to the world”, according to Hans Ulrich Obrist. On route, one crosses from North to South, a line which separates the richer from the poorer region of England. This line is something which Manchester’s Devo-Deal seeks to actively pivot upon as it hopes to position Manchester rather uniquely as “a genuine cultural counterbalance to London” (as though leverage were key to any form of an enabling dynamic).

Amongst such distances and their interstices, Dickinson further identifies ‘a gap’ between academic and journalistic modes of writing, especially in the case of writing around contemporary art in the North West of England. With culture being so central to debates around the benefit and distinctiveness of Manchester’s Devo Deal, Dickinson’s conference undoubtedly felt like a timely intervention amongst this assembled set of propositions.

Previously, I had enjoyed a slim volume entitled, A Thin Line, published by the Manchester Left Writers group (in which Dickinson is also a key player) which claims the counter-cultural title, ‘powerhouse liberation movement’, striking a dissonant note amongst the more familiar boastful trumpeting of the Northern Powerhouse agenda (Powerhouse Liberation Movement 2016). This mixes a variety of styles of writing, some biographical, some poetic, some polemic, some critical, to cumulative effect.

Such writing, reflective of embedded forms of local knowledge, was encouraged in the talk given by Laura Robertson and Mike Pennington at the conference too. They explained how their own writing initiative based in the North West, Double Negative, had initially stemmed from a desire to counteract the “cheerleading” public rhetoric which accompanied Liverpool being awarded the title of City of Culture all the way back in 2008. Their sentiments chime with other critical commentaries made about this particular regenerative model which identify misguided loyalties afoot in the promotion of the city using the frame of culture in this way. Speaking of Derry, for example, Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt (2013: 23) observed how positive media coverage had come to serve as a “smokescreen” to deflect attention away from pressing social and economic issues.

As Manchester looks set to likewise make claims for itself through the vehicle of culture, such (critical) commentaries deserve to be further explored and, more especially, made welcome. Robertson and Pinnington ended their conference talk by asserting the value of a distinctive art scene in the North, saying how “we have a responsibility to argue why we need art criticism in Manchester and the North West”. They went on to describe a visit from London-based critic Tim Marlow to Manchester, when he warned them to be very careful about “who you are critiquing and why” as any “blossoming art scene needs promoting”. They had rejected his caution as, they argued, “we deserve a strong critical scene” in order to reflect the “strength of work” (admittedly, something of a straw man argument.)

Such desires then, so contradictory in their intent, put me in mind of Grant Kester on the subject of critical distance. He gives a nuanced distinction between those artists who acknowledge (their own) social context against those who arrive at any given ‘site’ in the world in order to quarry it for the purpose of their own production (the latter model of the nomadic provocateur currently dominant in the contemporary art world). Kester (2011: 30-32) points out how “distance is not an absolute and constant characteristic of artistic subjectivity’’, but rather a necessary form of detachment, estrangement or skeptical distance, which is able to resist the seductive allure of consumer culture, propaganda or entertainment.

Such critical commentaries on assumed norms of critical art are urgently relevant in Manchester as the city seeks a global profile by way of its own distinctive cultural contribution rather than simply find commonality with other ‘world-class’ cities.


Grant Kester, (2011), The One and the Many: Contemporary Collaborative Art in the Global Context, Durham: Duke University Press.

Powerhouse Liberation Movement, (2016), A Thin Line, Fold Press for Castlefield Gallery. 

Frances Williams is a PhD candidate at Manchester Metropolitan University, studying Arts in Health as a social movement in the context of devolution. Formerly to this she worked for a range of arts institutions including Whitechapel, Tate and SLG. She now lives in Menai Bridge.