Walking around Ancoats, it's hard to believe it was the birthplace of the industrial revolution, that the quiet, cobblestoned streets would once have been ringing with the clog-heavy footsteps of thousands of workers crowding into the mills. Almost as hard to imagine is that businesses still operated out of its centuries-old mills well into the twentieth century, clinging on even as production was moved to cheaper factories in the developing world. Walk around the area for long enough, though, and you start to spot things. Brass portholes, barely noticeable, are attached to the outside of boarded up mills and empty buildings. Many look from a distance like just another piece of the buildings, pock-marked as they are with functional bits of metal. Crouch down, though, and peep, and you're looking into another world, a place where workers have just popped out for lunch and could be back at any time. At the end of each of the Ancoats Peeps is a scene, a tiny bit of history; close-ups of machinery, slowly rotating objects, a room with workers' pin-ups still on the wall, the inside of a public toilet. Some have a photographic stillness – until you realise a tiny detail is moving. You're not really sure what you're looking at, or even where you're looking at, but want to look again and again and again, waiting for someone to return or something to come back to life and spring into production again.
The Ancoats Peeps, of which there around a dozen in total, dotted about Ancoats (their exact number and location is delightfully mysterious), are part of a project that's spanned the best part of the last decade. When the last of industry was moving out of the area and buildings had been compulsorily purchased for redevelopment, the Ancoats Urban Village Company decided to hold a nationwide competition for an artist to undertake a public sculpture as part of the regeneration of the area, which was by then run-down and crime ridden. Artist and architect Dan Dubowitz won the commission; however, when he arrived in Ancoats in 2003, he was clear that a sculpture would not be right for the area. “I went and handed the cheque back. The area doesn't need another visual object to try and define it. There is a tendency towards edifices and big objects but Ancoats needed something subtle you would stumble across. It needed something about the whole area and the identity of the area that people could be involved in. The whole area is a sculpture in a way, a visual beast.”
Whilst most of the historic mills of Ancoats (those that weren't victims of arson) are still standing, in many ways the area is being rebuilt all over again. Not just in conversions and new apartment blocks, but culturally, as an area, in people's perceptions, as a place to live and work, a community, and it was this that Dan found he needed to address – why regenerate the area, when it was derelict, over any other part of the city, instead of just leaving it to rot or knocking it down and starting all over again? He explained: “I discovered a real problem that no object could ever address, which was cultural continuity. Ancoats has been such an important place and about certain things – capitalism and communism, written about by people like Engels – and now it's a wasteland. It's going from industrial to domesticity. I had to ask: 'How is it going to be about that if it was once about dark Satanic mills? What is Ancoats going to be used for next?' There aren't really professions whose job it is to ask those questions but they still need to be brought to the table on a weekly basis and asked over again. I was asking, 'If we're going to build, what should we be building and why?'"
Dan has experience of working on cultural masterplans around the country, although he admits: “Some of them don't really kick off and get that far. Public art is a very fraught field. The idea that art is something that beautifies an area does not help. So often the brief of an artist is to try to rescue something, for example liven up a public space when they decide it needs something. There is a huge value in involving an artist at an early stage – but it shouldn't be assumed that it will lead to a physical artwork.” The regeneration company agreed to let Dan approach the project organically. Dan was given his own studio and set about deciding what form his involvement as an artist should take. He started by exploring Ancoats and its stories, getting to know the dynamics of the area and the diaspora of its people by conducting hundreds of interviews. “There were still one or two man businesses in Ancoats – little guys with repair shops hanging on in corners. Lots of people have their own stories from different periods.”
Dan had decided to focus on art rather than architecture when he realised he was more interested in wastelands and derelict buildings, and working with what was already there, than putting new buildings up. Once he had gained access to the deserted mills of Ancoats, he starting documenting the place as he found it: “Once I got inside I'd just stay there all day. I developed a kind of photography using very long exposures and through that I got to know the place.” The resulting photos are beautiful. You feel like you're looking at a scene from a fairytale like sleeping beauty. Once industry moved out, nature moved in. Under glass ceilings, mills become greenhouses, overgrown with ferns and trees. In other cases, whole rooms were found intact, walled up. Some of these photos now sit in light-boxes in Cutting Room Square – the first ever public square in Ancoats, and another product of the regeneration process.
Part of the success of the Ancoats Peeps is that Dan was working with a diverse team that included not just town planners, engineers, architects and a landscape designer but a photographer and archaeologists. The latter unearthed all sorts of artefacts relating to the area's history, including eighteenth century ladies' shoes and a penny that had lain undisturbed in a roof of a mill since it was built. Dan realised the value of leaving things where they were: “I said, if we found things walled up, instead of putting things in a museum why don't we put them back? The team really understood the wider ramifications of things we found and their interest to wider types of people.” Dan appreciated the willingness of different members to bring their expertise to the team, but also “step outside the group and think outside the box”. There was real commitment to the area: “We sat in a room and knew that if we all made decisions this part of the city would be different. We weren't interested in writing reports that would just sit on a shelf.” He admits: “Ancoats was all-consuming. It took over my whole life.The space is really quite special. It really got under the skins of people. It has a spirit. It's something with no rational words, that you can't put your finger on.”
Dan described the creation and siting of the Peeps as “a long and complicated process”. Each Peep was installed on a building site – some of which were then themselves abandoned and became the new ruins of Ancoats, half-built skeletons, when the slump and depression hit (in one case, Dan had to steal in and rescue a Peep from a building whose owners had gone in to receivership). Dan ended up banning the use of the word “art”, preferring the word “features” for his work, and funding came from the European Regional Development Fund rather than the usual arts channels. The reasoning was that “the Peeps would be features in the street and a part of the streetscape, where you'd usually put benches”.
Whilst the buildings have had shell repairs to stop their deterioration, their fate is still far from decided. Though they are no longer ruins, several are still empty and “frozen in a kind of limbo”. However, Dan sees the completion of the part new-build Ice Plant residential development, which recently hosted an exhibition of his photos as well as a display of artefacts rescued from the area, as a turning point. With the Halle orchestra looking at moving into St Peter's church, he'd like to see the area buzz with culture and become a hive for arts activity – “like Victoria Baths”. Mainly, he acknowledges, “it just needs more people in it”. The regeneration of the area has created its own set of tales, and Dan and the team recently ran a weekend of walks around the area telling the story of the Peeps, which attracted 1,000 people – including former workers who came back to reminisce (one visitor even recognised themselves in some photos of Whit Walks that they'd forgotten existed). It's quite a transformation for an area that Dan admits “was such a no-go part of the city”. Now the project has come to a natural conclusion, Dan reflects: “We all wanted to see the area change in people's minds – we hope if those 1,000 people begin to see what we see then they will tell another 1,000 people.”
For more information and to purchase the accompanying book, The Peeps: The Presence of Absence, published by Manchester University Press, visit www.ancoatspeeps.com.
For more information on Dan's other work visit www.civicworks.net.