A grand gesture
Artistic duo John Campbell and Moira Kenny, better known as The Sound Agents, are no strangers to transforming a city centre building through art. Their ‘Opera for Chinatown’ installation on a derelict Duke Street site utilised photographs collated from an oral history project into Liverpool’s Chinatown district to tell the story of the old boarding house’s forgotten residents.
John and Moira have now been commissioned to design a commemorative piece of art for the Grade II*-listed Lyceum building on Bold Street to mark the anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. named after the wilfred owen poem, ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ will feature items from the Merseyside at War archive held at Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU), containing letters from soldiers sent to their families during the Great War.
John and Moira spoke to Your Move about the new project, the inspiration behind it and getting to the heart of every story.
Interview by Lawrence Saunders
Where did the idea for ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ come from and how long have you been working together on it?
MK: We’ve been working with Mike Doran of the Liverpool BID Company for two and a half years on this project. We submitted two designs and decided to go with a WWI design to honour the soldiers and their families.
Things have sped up now and we’re working with LJMU and its Merseyside at War archive. We recently went to view the archive – a very limited physical archive – just a small box, but we photographed it and also read some of the diaries from the soldiers in the trenches that have been transcribed and it’s heartbreaking. The work is going to focus on the human aspect; it’s not just an unknown soldier in a uniform. We’re looking at the families at home, the sisters, the mothers and so on.
JC: The idea came out of conversations with Mike about somehow dressing the Lyceum building – it’s a great building but at the moment it needs some attention.
As we started looking for funding we began looking at tying it together with the theme of the Great War. It so happened that the commemoration of the Battle of the Somme is on 1 July and we thought it would be good if we could get the design up on the building around the beginning of the month. We wanted to base that design around correspondence between people in the forces and their families back home.
“We want to bring some energy back into the bottom end of Bold Street… The Lyceum is a chance to tell a story.”
What was the thinking behind using the Lyceum building for the installation?
MK: The obvious link is the Lyceum used to be a post office and people are sad that is no longer the case. People are really angry about the Lyceum and the way it has just been left and it looks a disgrace. It’s terrible that so many beautiful buildings in Liverpool are just left to rot.
JC: One of the ideas was to dress the building and bring some sort of focus and attention to it again so people start talking about it and see where any refurbishment or regeneration of the building can go. We also want to bring some energy back into the bottom end of Bold Street.
The Lyceum building was of course at one point a post office and also originally England’s first lending library. In a way it has always been a building of letters so we thought of this communication theme and taking a look at how things were between families in this period.
The Lyceum is a chance to tell a story. I must be from one of the last generations that have a connection with the war in the sense that I can remember my grandfather who fought in the war.
I suppose generations after me won’t have that connection so there is something very poignant about this installation as the Great War is moving into history in a very real sense now – out of personal memories and just into the history books.
The Lyceum is currently vacant, just like the building where your ‘Opera for Chinatown’ installation is situated. What is it about vacant buildings that you think makes a good canvas for art?
MK: In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, when I was a little girl, there were lots of derelict buildings left over from the war and they always fascinated me. I spent a lot of my time playing out in these derelict buildings and on bombsites!
JC: For me, buildings such as the terraces on Duke Street and the Lyceum give you the opportunity to tell a story – it can be like a museum or art gallery on the street.
With the Chinatown project, it really tells the story of the community that we’d met there and their families. That story is not obvious on the street; you can’t see it as you’re walking down Nelson Street. It’s about what happens in the front rooms and the homes of those families. With people’s stories, the background material is often more interesting than whatever is in the spotlight.
Do you have any other projects on the horizon?
MK: We have put in an application to 14-18 NOW to see if we can be commissioned to do a seperate exhibition on Bold Street, also to be named ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’.
What we really want to do is get everyday people involved in the project. Mike is looking into getting us an empty shop and turning that into a gallery space where people will be able to come and talk to us and bring along items related to the war for us to exhibit.