Saturday, 13 November 2010

Brighton Photo Biennial (a small piece of)

Well this morning I finally got round to visiting the old Co-op building on London Road, as part of the Brighton Photo Biennial, which finishes tomorrow. You should totally try and get over there, because honestly, it's incredible.

And while the photography is fascinating and varied (and in plentiful supply, thanks to the vastness of the space), for me, it was the building itself that really stole the show.

The Co-op supermarket on London road has always freaked me out slightly. In it's current incarnation it's a medium sized grocery supermarket, and separate weird cavernous post office hall. The supermarket has a kind of bleak vibe to it, and, in my fairly limited experiences of it, always smells quite odd.

What I didn't know was that the building used to house a full, vast, three storey co-op department store, which, for the last month, has been opened up at the weekends to house part of the Brighton Photo Biennial.

As I walked round the building, I guessed that the store had probably closed in the mid/early 90's, but some quick internet research tells me that the store only finally shut it's doors in 2007. The remaining decor seemed incredibly dated, and remarkably crumbling and derelict for a mere three years abandonment. Places in the building were taped off due to crumbling walls or leaking ceilings, and most of the carpets were dated, marked and stained, with the laminate walkways cracking and peeling at the edges.

The vast spaces of the department store which we'd be used to seeing divided up by shelves and sales points were left as completely open expanses, and although broken up by the photography exhibits, for me, it was the space itself that really stole the show.

I think this was at least partly down to how much it reminded me of vague childhood experiences I couldn't quite place. I'm fairly certain I'd never been in that building prior to today, but I remember at some point early in my childhood being in a remarkably similar co-op building somewhere else. I remember my mum explaining to me what a 'co-operative' is while I sat on some wiry brown carpet tiles and she tried on different beige handbags. I guess I was probably about 5.

The whole place had the smell of another place from my childhood, the local community centre, where I'd often spend long Saturday mornings at bric-a-brac sales, church raffles and suchlike. I remember so vividly that smell and those clicky clacky brown streaky floor tiles, just like in this shop. The spot where I took the picture below was almost identical to a place I used to sit as a child in that community centre. Weirded me out slightly, I guess.

I wouldn't describe it as nostalgia, because to be honest the whole place unsettled me slightly... it was almost like the familar had been twisted and distorted... I certainly wouldn't like to be in there alone at night. Not because I believe in ghosts or any of that nonsense, simply because there's something quite unpleasant about what would once have been a warm, friendly, bustling shop, now sitting looking like this.

I particularly liked these works, some of a few non-photography pieces, where words had been cleaned into the dirt in a bold sans serif typeface. References to David Cameron's 'Big Society', and other current political symbolism were the main themes.

As I say, the Biennial ends tomorrow, and that will be your last chance to see this building in the near future. It's well worth a visit. There is some amazing photography (I remember few specific names, but Martin Parr curated the ground floor exhibition, which was excellent... I also enjoyed some work based on the most recent election on the first floor, as well as some stunning large scale photographs of seemingly mundane areas of dirt or plant life on the ground floor.)
But, above all that, see this building. Besides any political discussion about the demise of the British high street, it's simply an incredible space to walk around.

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