Imagine these two scenes: scene 1, a steam train departed in the 19th century at an inconvenient time slot, carrying workers and other passengers from ‘low classes’ in basic carriages that were being attached to a goods train; scene 2, in 2021, or 2015, a group of homeless people were expelled from public space such like square and public library because of their ‘polluting presence’. All of these scenes were true stories. Some have argued that the differences between the third-class carriages and the first-class/second-class ones are reasonable considering the charged cost, and others have shared their opinions that the presence of homeless people might have affected other members using the space. But then there are a few questions raised here, a few old questions that have been asked over and over: what does ‘open for all’ really mean? And what is public, or publicness?
During this remote residency with Metal Liverpool, I approached the Edge Hill Archive with these questions in mind and had the chance to discuss my thoughts with other artists and community workers. What I wanted to explore is this hidden but seemingly certain connection between the ‘soot-bag’ system in the old times and the exclusion of public space in our contemporary society/city. As one of our guest artists Robyn Woolston pointed out during the public event on 23rd February, the exclusion and segregation that occurred in the railway history reminds her of an encounter in Texas, where she noticed a sign that says ‘engaging in non-commercial expressive activity not sponsored by the centre is prohibited’ at a ‘public space’ managed by a private company. Many have written about the latter especially in the Anglo context, such as Margaret Crawford, Ali Madanipour, and Anna Minton. Drawing from my PhD research on the production of publicness in Hong Kong, the same cases can also be easily found in many Asian cities. In these cases, is the notion of publicness dependent on capital? Or gender and race as it once was (and still is in some places)? Or political differentiation (as one could feel in this world torn by conflicts)?
For me, connecting two scenes at different periods of time offers a historical scope to approach the ideology of segregation and exclusion. It is an ideology that has been lingering for centuries, being operated for a specific group but often mixed with, or concealed by the narrative of ‘open for all’. It was the public sphere for the bourgeoisie, the Roman Forum for men, the Montgomery bus for the White, the Malmö Live for well-educated citizens, and the open atrium for buyers. With them and us always allocated into different spaces, the realisation of ‘open to all’ is an action of breaking down the physical and social segregations. It becomes a practice of (re)claiming the right to space, and to the city in general as written by the French philosopher Henry Lefebvre in 1968. For Lefebvre, the city is an oeuvre that everyone should have the right to it – not just seeing it, consuming it, or owning it, but working on it. In this sense, a city can truly become open to everyone.
Through this historical scope, one can also notice an evolving conception of publicness from a less pessimistic standpoint. For Edge Hill Station, it was transformed from one of the oldest passenger railway stations in the world to the current office of Metal Liverpool as a cultural hub opening to local artists and the public while continuing its role as a railway station. In 2011, Metal Liverpool launched the Edge Hill Archive to rediscover the records and stories contributed by the local communities. As part of the outcome from the residency, I made five collage pieces composed of materials from the Archive to illustrate the history of the Edge Hill Station (to see all 5 collages please visit www.zhuozhangli.com) and its deep root with the local community. The collage works presented here, therefore, are collective. My job is merely to tell his/her/their stories. This perspective of seeing the past (of one station building, or of one city) with a notion of plurality also a response to the unilateral discourse of the ‘history’, which then serves as a starting point to understand our current – to see the city as a collage made by everyone, a collage with life scenes abutting, combining, superimposing, or conflicting with each other.
If you would like to discuss the collage and this topic with me, please contact me through ins or twitter @zhuozhangli, or email@example.com. You can also see my past projects at www.zhuozhangli.com.