Disco curtains, floral murals, and twenty two tiny horses
When I hear the words "Canal Art", I think of humorous litter, floating shopping trollies, and graffiti that says stuff like "MUFC are shit", but I went to meet the folk behind The Rochdale Canal Art Trail with an open mind.
My preconceptions about canal art were immediately destroyed, I had my camera at the ready.
Standing by the viaduct at Deansgate train station, the cool creatives behind Things That Go On Things, Gemma Saunders and Jude Jagger, explained that they'd been commissioned by The Canal and River Trust to give people a way of experiencing art whilst walking along the canal, the main aim being to "brighten up a bit of the waterway and get more people to spend time by the water - because life's better by the water".
Explaining that the trail consists of a floor mural by artist Venessa Scott, a series of sculptures titled "I'm A Little Horse" by Sumit Sarkar, a mirror cave, and a disco curtain, my preconceptions about canal art were immediately destroyed, I had my camera at the ready.
I strolled alongside Gemma from Things That Go On Things as she explained that, for them, it's all about making art accessible, immersive, and something for everyone to enjoy. The Canal Art Trail is therefore another collab that brings art into the public domain and encourages people to take in the scenery around them whilst immersing themselves within a cultural environment.
Making life better by the water
Before heading off on the trail, I also had a quick chat with James Long from The Canal & River Trust about plans for the waterway and its surrounding areas: "It's about trying to make the canal safer, cleaner, and greener for the people of Manchester. We know it's a really important part of the history and the heritage of the city and that it runs through some really vibrant and diverse areas".
Over the past few years, the trust and its sturdy team of volunteers and partners have planted trees, introduced floating water gardens, built planters, and generally made the canal a cleaner and greener way to travel from A to B. These efforts culminated with a prestigious Green Flag Award title in recognition of the transformation. The team ultimately want to turn the canal into a destination whilst also keeping the industrial and urban feel that draws a lot of people in.
Sharing the same ethos as Things That Go On Things, The Canal & River Trust also want to "start thinking about culture and celebrating how creative Manchester is, and giving people a reason to come and spend time down on the towpath" James explained.
The COVID 19 lockdown increased the footfall in some areas of the canal by up to 300%, so the volunteers and staff are determined to keep Mancs stomping up and down different canal routes and taking in the green spaces around them.
I'm a little horse
Joining us on our walk from Castlefield to Canal Street, digital sculptor, painter, and virtual reality artist Sumit Sarkar (Kriksix) explained the meaning behind his series of 3D printed horses. Working alongside Things That Go On Things, he decided that horses and their role in the transportation of goods would be an ideal starting point:
“I was commissioned to make some sculptures for the art trail, and it was suggested that we look at horses and their role in towing the canal boats, which is what the towing-path was originally designed for. By complete coincidence, I was already looking at Eadweard Muybridge's photographic studies of motion from the late 1800s, and looking into horses anyway. So together, we thought that a series of sculptures that re-create the animation sequence of a horse galloping would be an ideal installation.”
As you walk along the canal path, there are 22 horses to spot in and amongst the walls, bridges and existing ruins, an idea that Gemma spawned after visiting a National Trust house in Scotland where they'd hidden a small Lego figurine hidden within every room.
Creating a Where’s Wally kind of cultural experience, the horses have been 3D printed onto brick ends, and when put together, form an animation sequence of a horse running. At the end of the trail at Lock 97, there’s a QR code attached to one of the cable boxes. When scanned, this code links to a short YouTube clip that shows the 22 horses in motion.
Flowers on the floor
One component of the Art Trail that's impossible to miss is Venessa Scott's floral mural at Lock 89 (Tib Lock). Both Things That Go On Things and The Canal & River Trust were keen to have a mural as part of the trail, and "after many walks up and down the canal, we thought that painting one on the floor would be a nice idea".
The piece brings the area to life with vibrant colours, block shapes, and an all-encompassing composition that wraps around the paths and planters on both sides of the canal. Inspired by "the diverse wildlife and waterway plants and wildflowers", it's designed to encourage visitors to take in the greenery and nature around them, even as they weave in and around the bustle of the city.
If you're after some Insta-ready snaps from your next Sunday walk, this spot should definitely be incorporated into the route.
Mirror caves and disco curtains
Mirror caves and disco curtains are both concepts sound like props from the Labyrinth film with David Bowie, we know, but in actual fact, they round off the trail with some light-hearted fun and the opportunity for a canal-side mirror selfie.
As well as Vanessa’s floor mural and Sumit’s 3D horses, Jude and Gemma have created two unique pieces that are designed to “reflect the water and other forms of creative expression”.
The Mirror Cave is a long, horizontal mirror installed under the bridge at Lock 88, and the disco curtain sits right beside the Beacon of Hope sculpture on the edge of Sackville Gardens. Consisting of rows of CD discs attached to a pink wooden frame, the disco curtain is “just a bit of fun and something for passersby to interact with”. Inspired by the vibrant scene of Canal Street, it also aims to "spark joy and encourage a spot of dancing in the street".
In it for the long run
Before leaving the new immersive, multi-dimensional art gallery that is The Rochdale Canal, I asked Gemma how long these pieces will be on display. As far as she's concerned, the trail will last as long as it can withstand the Mancunian weather and people plodding up and down along the canal.
All involved in the trail are "hoping that these works will attract new visitors and start a conversation around what we can do long term to bring more art and creativity to the waterways".
If you're looking for a new run route, want to keep the kids busy looking for tiny horses, or just fancy seeing some art on your inner-city strolls, The Rochdale Canal Art Trail is ready for visitors and creatives as of right now.
You can keep up with both Things That Go On Things and The Canal & River Trust on social media too, because who doesn't love cool cultural canal content.
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