In Haunt

Manchester’s Angel Meadow at 4am is simultaneously empty and layered in life, as artist Simon Buckley stands, seemingly alone. Yet under his feet lie thousands of bodies– part of the area was once known for its notorious slum housing at the height of the Industrial Revolution, as well as being one of the largest cemeteries in the city– and over his head, a growing dawn chorus; hundreds of birds breaking into song to welcome the day.

By Simon Buckley

Simon is no stranger to exploring the early hours, their potential for insight as well as eeriness. The award-winning photographer behind the Not Quite Light (NQL) project, festival and podcast series, his work often considers change and development in Manchester and Salford, from a dawn perspective. Now, he is faced with a change uniting us all and shaping the cities in a whole new way: the Covid-19 Pandemic and lockdown.

In this interview, Simon talks to Dr Matt Foley (Manchester Centre for Gothic Studies, Manchester Metropolitan University) about his reflections on the current situation, and rather than directly rushing to develop a creative response – the importance of contemplation, slowing down and patience.

Simon and Matt were also previously involved in a 2018 collaborative event between NQL Festival and Haunt Manchester, a panel discussion titled ‘Following Hauntology: twilight streets and dark horizons’, considering how the past continues to haunt the present, and how this might emerge in creativity. Since then, Simon has been involved in multiple projects, including work with Macclesfield Festival and Barnaby Festival, achieved wide recognition for his much-loved Rainstorm photograph of Deansgate and has continued with his NQL project and festival; with NQL Festival 2020 set for later this year, public health conditions dependent.

Dr Matt Foley is Lecturer in Modern and Contemporary Literature at Manchester Metropolitan University and a member of the Manchester Centre for Gothic Studies as well as Academic Lead for Haunt Manchester and Bristol.  He was previously interviewed about his book Haunting Modernisms here, and his research interests include the fiction of Patrick McGrath and the acoustics of Gothic literature. He interviewed Simon remotely, below…

Hi Simon. Thanks so much for joining us at Haunt. Your time’s much appreciated. How are you bearing-up in the age of social distancing? The knock-on effect for artists and curators must be being felt tremendously.

“My work is fairly solitary anyway, and I tend not to invite too much contact with clients. Ha! Being out at dawn means that I'm often alone, distanced from people, with just the film set city for company. 

The outside world has felt a little like The Truman Show at times, virtual, distant, irrelevant. My head has been in something of a fug really, as I come to terms and adapt to the new situation. I stayed in for the first two weeks of lockdown, but have now begun to venture out at dawn for exercise, feeling it's safe to do so at 5am.

“Financially things have changed, of course, and there will now be some awful stories of hardship emerging over the coming weeks. I do hope that people can manage.”

By Simon Buckley

It strikes me that your photography is made for these times or, at least, deeply connected to the urban emptiness we all now face. Has ‘social distancing’ changed your view of your existing work? I’m thinking here of the empty city spaces and canal paths that you’ve captured at dawn around Salford and Manchester – how does it feel for this emptiness to be the new, albeit temporary norm?

“I've been self-employed all of my working life, and I thought I'd be fine, that I would simply carry on working in the same way as I had been doing before it all began in mid-March. However, the isolation has really confronted me. I've at times felt absolutely no connection with my city, I've wanted to be in wilderness. My work, I suppose, deals with transition and, in many ways the deserted city looks very familiar to me, as this is how I so often experience it. One of the things I most enjoy about place without people, is that you can explore the detail of the surrounding environment without the distraction of humans.

“And I've also often considered the notion that famous cities of the ancient world, once as important as London, Moscow or New York are now just dust. Fragments of them remain and we spend centuries trying to figure out what they were and why they were destroyed. The emptiness of the streets at the moment inspires me to consider Manchester and Salford's future far beyond our lifetimes.

“I re-visited Angel Meadow the other day at dawn for exercise. It's the place that inspired NQL back in 2015 with that simple question of 'what would these souls beneath my feet think of this present city?'. As so many of them buried beneath that soil died of disease, it's impossible to not feel connected with them and their changed city during this time of pandemic. What might our city become as result of disease?

“And in terms of social distancing, I feel safe when in the city at dawn. It's a time of sanctuary, peace. The song of emboldened birds is delicious and I wish I could slow to glacial crawl those precious 45 mins from first light to sunrise, so that I could exist in this elemental environment for weeks, perhaps years. The roots of trees transmit their unfathomable messages so slowly, and I envy that. The slowing pace of current life is, I feel, beautiful, miraculous. I just wish it wasn't attached to something so profoundly traumatic.”

As anyone who follows NQL’s Twitter feed will know, you are a keen charter of time, particularly the times when first light, sunrise, sunset and nightfall happen on each day of the year. The clocks have just gone forward – only two days ago as we speak – and it’s now British Summer Time. Does the changing of the clocks hold the same significance for you this year as it would usually do?

“On a very practical level it did, as it signified the postponement of the Not Quite Light Festival. Otherwise I've become more connected with the natural measurements of time. The clocks going forward and back are artificial constructs, and look absurd in the current context of our world. The light over the cities, because of lessened traffic, has been positively coastal, and so the stars and moon have seemed particularly bright. And daily routines are now very much down to the individual, so there haven't been the rush-hour markers to distract me from the days being dictated by natural light. I'm already aware of a low-level continuum hum of anxiety within me, concerned at returning to the normality of pre-lockdown. The significance, therefore, I guess, is that this year the clocks going forward have been a catalyst for contemplation, for consideration of new paths. A desire for change.”

By Simon Buckley

As we speak, we’re still in the early days of social distancing. Have you thought about curating digital events (perhaps with others) or putting on digital exhibitions of your own work?

“There has been a rush to get so much creative work online, which has been wonderful in so many ways. However, it will also create a degree of white noise. And in terms of my own work I strongly felt the need to be patient, to step back and work out how I actually felt about what was happening before posting anything online.

“In the past 10 days or so my subconscious mind has begun to release its findings into my conscious brain, and I've started to engage with some ideas and ways of working. I'm likely to end up putting work online, and perhaps curating other people's work too. In particular my Not Quite Light project will start to get going again, and I'm carrying on with a project for the Barnaby Festival that I began on Winter Solstice last December.

“I think I will use the time to trip myself up, to challenge myself to work in new ways, so I'm aiming to incorporate written work and music to accompany the visual. It might be rubbish, who knows, indeed who cares. I have to guard against arrogance too. I've had to question the importance of art at a time like this. What is its role when the real heroes are our medical staff, supermarket workers and delivery drivers? However, I want to try out new ideas and I'm unlikely to ever have an opportunity like this again.”

For more information about Simon Buckley, his website can be visited here and Not Quite Light is also online.

By Dr Matt Foley and Emily Oldfield

Photographs with thanks to Simon Buckley

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