One of the chief disadvantages of being dead is that you’re in no position to feel gratified by the kindnesses garlanded on you to rose-tint your memory. The UMIST campus, its prognosis far from certain as it faces the fate of redevelopment, can, should its existence be curtailed, at least console itself that it’s been present for its wake.

UMIST – inside the lab

More than a decade after the modernist society’s first intervention at the site, staging an uninvited artist’s residency, it has returned to the scene of what it then described as a crime to organise a celebration of what has become a Manchester landmark; part of the city’s collective memory of itself. The responses it received to that invitation make up In Case You Missed It, the current exhibition in the society’s Port Street emporium. Taken together, they look more like witness statements than an obituary, an oral history in physical form rather than a biography.

Instead of dispassionate records, the best of the works evoke something of the buildings’ character, as well as the feelings they evoke, revealing in the process the qualities that lie beneath the aesthetic appeal of its concrete surfaces, ones that arise from the artist’s particular relationship with them. The precise nature of these fluctuates across the time of their lives, along with the degrees of that intimacy.

Beaux Gibbons’ Tea, for instance, seems to straddle the decades, its nine-panel grid resembling a series of stills from a lost Pet Shop Boys’ video. Its three principles all sport Dadaist headwear, an example of which is also modelled on the polystyrene head of a showroom dummy in the shop itself. Benjamin Carter’s UMIST, on the other hand, knowingly evokes the clean slate of the campus’s conception, perfectly encapsulating the drawing board lines of 1960s promotional material. Even the typeset has something of Letraset‘s rub-down solidity.

Renold Building and its plaque – photo by Jack Hale

If Carter’s work is utopian in nature, Space Play’s Manchester As A Fictional World is its obverse; a Ballardian monochrome photo collage in which the white heat of the 60s’ technological optimism has begun, like the Hulme Crescents, to collapse in on itself into the black hole of the dystopian science fiction of the early 1970s. Also rooting the campus to the 70s, via the map reference of its title, is UMIST@53.47485-2.23357 by Huran Marsh, contrastingly evoking the orange sear of the age of plastic, albeit in fluorescent acrylic.

While these works locate the buildings in their various pasts, Concrete Jungle, a collage by DR. ME, ambiguously foreshadows their future. At its centre, their colourless image seems in danger of being over-run by the riotous foliage in vivid hues that surrounds them. It’s a craft-knife sharp depiction of the transience of the built environment, a salutary reminder that, beneath the paving stones, the weeds are biding their time.

Perhaps the piece most obviously imbued with a sense of leave-taking, Jen Orpin‘s ‘s UMIST At Dusk is elegantly elegiac. Seen in passing from the Mancunian Way, the buildings are twilit, already retreating into the rear view mirror. If it is a farewell, In Case You Missed It remains true to its intentions. More party than funeral, it cements UMIST’s place in the continual presence of Manchester’s past, ensuring its ghost will occupy its one-time locale as inescapably as the shade of The Haçienda continues to haunt Whitworth Street, too good to be forgotten.

By Desmond Bullen


Renold Building, 7am. Photo by Bill Ayres.

In Case You Missed It is at The Modernist in Manchester until December 24, 2303. For more information, click here.