Concrete Feathers and Porcelain Tacks – The Photographers’ Gallery

There is a lot to say about Rochdale.

Economically it is one of the most deprived areas in the UK, but culturally Rochdale is anything but.

Byron, the legendary romantic poet, owed his title – Baron Byron of Rochdale – to the town. Gracie Fields, one of the most internationally famous actresses and singers of the 20th century was born in Rochdale, and most famously, the town gave birth to the modern Cooperative Movement.

The pioneers who founded it based the Cooperative on the ‘Rochdale Principles’, the most crucial of which states that each cooperative has to be run democratically by its members and that membership should be open to all no matter what race, religion, sex or sexuality a person happens to be.

Rochdale’s community is a patchwork quilt of numerous sections. The town is extraordinarily diverse, and despite well-documented problems over the years, Rochdale’s community has remained largely tightly knit.

While other nearby towns, such as Oldham, saw a fraying and an erupting of racial tensions in the 1990s and early 2000s, Rochdale retained a sense of togetherness – despite its many adversities – to offer a welcoming home to people from all over the world.

For example, at a time when the very existence of Ukraine as an independent nation is being threatened by Russian troops menacing its borders, it is important to note that Rochdale has long been a safe harbour for Ukrainian people in times of strife.

Rochdale was the first town to recognise the Holodomor Famine – a man-made catastrophe caused in part by Joseph Stalin’s decision to single out Ukraine for harsh treatment in order suppress an independence movement – as genocide.

The famine killed as many as ten million Ukrainians and there is a memorial stone commemorating the event in front of Rochdale Town Hall.

It is Rochdale’s community that multimedia artist Helen Cammock pays tribute to in her exhibition ‘Concrete Feathers and Porcelain Tacks’ which is now in its final days at London’s Photographers’ Gallery.

The exhibition, which was put together in cooperation with Rochdale’s wonderful Touchstone Gallery, uses film, photography, text, song and performance to present all the different facets of Rochdale’s bustling community in one place.

Cammock uses the Cooperative Movement and the town’s proud industrial heritage as a starting point and uses this base as a way to examine the power and potential of a social collective.

An immersive, nearly two-hour film, forms the centrepiece of the exhibition and it features people working together to make the town a better place, while outside the projection room objects that are referenced in the film are on display.

A Ukrainian choir is featured singing a traditional song on a bandstand in one of Rochdale’s many parks. In another section Sultan Ali is interviewed, a man who went from growing up as a shepherd boy in Sahiwal in Pakistan to becoming Rochdale’s first Asian Muslim mayor in 2003.

Rochdale resident Pete is also featured, a retired joiner, who speaks of his attempts to re-wild an abandoned patch of scrubland close to the town centre. His success is evident, as he lists the countless numbers of wildflowers, butterflies and birds that he has spotted in the years since he began his work.

A Bangladeshi artist is depicted showing the sewing machine skills – a nod to Rochdale’s textile industry- that were passed down to her by her parents and grandparents. Her knowledge has proved to be an inspiration for her artwork and she is pictured using an antique sewing machine by the side of Hollingworth Lake – a popular local beauty spot.

The conversations depicted between the residents capture discussions about the future and the past, the good and the bad, but most importantly they focus on common experiences.

All stills from Concrete Feathers and Porcelain Tacks, 2021 © Helen Cammock 
Courtesy of the artist

“The spaces we inhabit are different shapes to everyone. The comfort we enjoy is not the same from one community to the next – from one home to the next,” Cammock comments.

“But some strive more for a sense of collective parity. The Rochdale Principles embody this notion of a shared role, responsibility, and stake in what little or great opportunity and subsistence a community generates.”

This is an exhibition that proves that despite Rochdale’s often harsh industrial history and the problems that still confound the town and its community to this day, a sense of humanity, humour and warmth still shines through.

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