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Tunnel Vision And Pyramid Schemes: How To Redefine Art For The People

What links a 19th Century tunnel builder known as The Mad Mole, a stadium rave act from the early ‘90s and a housing estate in Liverpool? Art, says John Doran, or at least art as it could be if it were allowed to fully embrace the ethical, the social, the practical and the magical...


Anyone who makes the daily commute to Liverpool will be familiar with Edge Hill, a small district bordering the southern lip of the city centre. All trains heading for the giant whale bone ribcage of Lime Street pass through it; the platform sign for Edge Hill Station a prompt for commuters to put their coats back on, ready for the rush hour scrum. At one time, all trains stopped there before entering the imposing sandstone tunnel and cuttings which lead into to Lime Street, giving birth to a memorable piece of scouse slang for coitus interruptus: ‘getting off the train at Edge Hill’.

The area was first developed in the late 18th Century, with most of the houses built by a tobacco magnate called Joseph Williamson in the early 19th Century. You can still get a sense today of what this area originally looked like; Edge Hill was designated a Conservation Area in 1979 and many of the Georgian houses Williamson built still stand. The streets of listed buildings are juxtaposed with the equally typical sight of ‘tinned up’ derelict shops and partially demolished pubs cheek by jowl with blocks of new build flats.

As with the nearby districts of Toxteth and Kensington, the highs and lows of several centuries worth of local history are encoded into the architecture of Edge Hill - the riches brought by the industrial revolution and the slave trade; diverse immigration, the dramatic impact of the railways, rampant class divide, financial decline, urban chaos and partial regeneration. But Edge Hill also has an occluded history, a hidden nature which can’t be seen in the buildings at street level although the psychogeographical signs are there for those walking down Tunnel Road past the Tunnel Furniture store.  

Joseph Williamson was an important enough local figure to warrant the nickname the King Of Edge Hill when he was alive, but one gets a better flavour of how he was regarded when the posthumous nicknames he picked up after death in 1840 are considered: the Mole Of Edge Hill, the Gargantuan Mole Of Mason Street or more prosaically, the Mad Mole.

Williamson was a true self-made man. Born in Barnsley, Yorkshire, in 1769, he grew up in poverty in Warrington, Cheshire, and left home at the age of 11 to seek his fortune. He found work in a tobacco warehouse in Liverpool, quickly working his way up the ranks, winning the respect of the owner Thomas Moss Tate, eventually marrying his daughter Elizabeth and taking over the business from her brother in 1806. He spent the next decade and a half working hard, accruing a massive fortune and building a lot of property in the Mason Street area - but if that’s all he had done with his fortune we almost certainly wouldn’t be talking about him today.

For reasons that still remain unclear, Williamson started tunneling down through the solid sandstone bedrock under his cellar. Little by little over, the course of several decades, he employed hundreds of men to help him excavate a series of tunnels that stretch for miles underneath the local area at depths of between 20 and 50 feet below street level. He was always very secretive about his motivation (although quick to say he was employing more men than other industrialists and landowners in the area). After the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1816 work was hard to come by and unemployment was high, especially among returning soldiers, so there were always large gangs of labourers ready to work on Williamson’s strange, troglodytic project.


Forgotten for decades ...

In the 1985 book, Liverpool Characters & Eccentrics written by Richard Whittington-Egan, we get a vividly imagined (if casually racist) portrait of how Williamson’s tunnels connected dramatically with a much larger excavation, carried out by another notable, if somewhat more conventional, industrialist of the day.

One day, back in the dawn of the Railway Age, a husky gang of Irish navvies were happily hacking a tunnel through the great sandstone mass which was impeding George Stephenson’s first railway line between Edge Hill and Lime Street. Suddenly a mighty blow from one of their picks went clean through the stone floor, and, to the horror of the workmen, strange noises began to float up from the heart of the rock. Standing silent and spellbound in the eerie flicker of their lanterns, they saw the hole widen itself and, as they watched, wide-eyed, a head popped out and addressed them in language unmistakably associated with the infernal regions! It was all too much for the superstitious Irishmen; with yelps of terror they downed their tools and fled frantically for the daylight… It seems that Stephenson had a rival and that his labourers had unwittingly trespassed upon the subterranean preserves of one of the most fantastic characters in the whole of Liverpool’s chequered history.” - Joseph Williamson - the Gargantuan Mole Of Mason Street.

Some people have assumed that Williamson’s sole motivation in making his underground labyrinth was one of concern for the plight of the working class - he is listed on Wikipedia primarily as a “philanthropist” - but there’s no real proof that this was the case. While he was aware he was making all the difference to the many men he employed - he had come from poverty himself after all - the unusual nature of the tasks he had them doing adds an air of ambiguity to his motivation. (In fact, seen from a modern point of view, some of the work he offered prior to the burrowing of his catacombs seems existentially distressing, if not downright cruel. He would pay a large gang of men to dig a big hole on one day, and then pay another gang to fill it back in again the day after that.)

There were many philanthropists of the industrial revolution who had well thought out philosophies regarding how they intended to enrich the lives of their employees. Sir Titus Salt built the relatively utopian workers village Saltaire in Shipley, West Yorkshire, along comendably proto-socialist lines in the mid 19th Century. A true ethical visionary in the field of workforce care, he went to great lengths not just to attend to the housing, health and education of his workers but to their recreation and moral well being as well. Williamson, on the other hand, had no particular long term plan for how he could build a sustainable future for his workers or if he did, he took it to his grave with him. On the day of his death, 1 May, 1840, workers downed tools on the project for good and the tunnels were bricked up and forgotten about for decades.


Roll call of lunacy

Other modern commentators have branded Williamson mad and he had no shortage of contemporaries in Liverpool who arrived at the same conclusion. He was clearly very eccentric, that’s not in dispute. When one of his tenants, who lived in a neighbouring house, complained that she didn’t have room for her newborn, the King Of Edge Hill simply knocked through the adjoining brick wall from his house to hers in the middle of the night without warning her so she and the baby could use his drawing room as a nursery. On one occasion Williamson invited many local dignitaries to a feast: On arrival, they were ushered into a cramped room and offered a measly meal of bacon and beans causing many to leave in a state of high annoyance. Williamson then led the remaining guests upstairs to a hall for the real lavish banquet.

But the genuinely mad tend to lose fortunes not make them. Compare Williamson to his contemporary, the born and bred nobleman, MP and feckless spendthrift Jack Mytton and the distinction becomes quite clear. The former was in all probability an individual with unique perspective, who was perhaps on the bipolar spectrum, while the latter was an actual maniac. Mytton’s roll call of lunacy, while depleting his family’s massive fortune, is too lengthy to recount here but he once rode a large bear into his own banquet hall to impress his guests. Despite causing half of the people in attendance to dive screaming out of the windows for safety he was furious that his stunt had not been impressive enough and applied his spurs to the large beast which then dismounted him and ate part of one of his legs. At one stage Mytton owned over 2,000 pet dogs and fed his favourites on steak and champagne. Unhinged to the end, he once couldn’t shake a fit of hiccups and in order to scare himself out of them, he set fire to the shirt he was wearing at the time. This had an all too predictable result and he never recovered from the burns.  

Other theories that don’t have a shred of evidence to support them have abounded over the years. Some say that Williamson was a member of an extremist religious cult whose members were convinced that Armageddon was immanent and so were engaged in a project to build an underground shelter that would protect their number from the end of days. Whatever his motivation, with no evidence to the contrary, I believe that Williamson was someone who would have been regarded as a visionary artist had he lived today. He certainly had a singular (if occulted) purpose that fulfilled highly personal aesthetic and ritual criteria, which just happened to carry a valuable social function as well. Looked at through this prism, the Mad Mole was creating underground art (in more than one sense), over a century before the phrase ‘underground art’ would carry any kind of meaning, although perhaps the nomenclature Magical Realist Art might be more fitting and more useful.

Before you scoff, let me just say that first of all, it’s not impossible to make non-standard art that resonates deeply with a heightened sense of time and place while also having a positive impact on the people who encounter it. And secondly, if you look hard enough, Liverpool is groaning at the seams with examples. Walk just 15 minutes from Mason Street in a southerly direction towards Toxteth and you come to Cairns Street - part of a small Liverpudlian housing estate that won the Turner Art Prize in 2015. As one of the judges of the prize acknowledged at the time, the winning group of architects and designers were “part of a long tradition of art working in society”.

Assemble, the 18-strong group, won for their work assisting a group of residents in the rundown Granby Four Streets area of Toxteth. Things had been grim for long term residents of the area ever since the so-called Toxteth riots of 1981. Despite the fact that the establishment went on to treat the nine-night-long outbreak of violence triggered by a brutalising and institutionally racist local police force as a wake up call - one which would be responsible for a complete overhaul in the way the UK police force operated - the Conservative government of the day still punished Toxteth itself harshly.


Misconceived and poorly executed

In 2011, it was revealed that the then Chancellor Geoffrey Howe pushed PM Margaret Thatcher to let the area slide into “managed decline” just after the riots. That this conversation even took place at cabinet level yet again points to a more pervasive, institutionalised contempt that Westminster has held Merseyside in over the years. It should also be said that Labour governments haven’t done much better by the area since, if one takes into account the misconceived and poorly executed Pathfinder Renewal Programme of the nearby Welsh Streets estate.

After 30-odd years of neglect due to half-baked and fully-failed regeneration schemes, people fed up with the neglected housing estate took matters into their own hands. A community land trust was established in 2011 - it took ownership of the estate and set about making the abandoned and gutted houses presentable and habitable; beautifying the streets by the means of “guerilla gardening” with help from Assemble.

The fact that one of the world’s leading art prizes was awarded to a working class housing estate, angered some in the art community, who obviously longed for the good old days when rationality reigned and more traditional forms were lauded by critics and judges such as two chopped-in-half cows pickled in aspic [Turner Prize 1995]; a film of a tea party [Turner Prize 2013], some sea shanties [Turner Prize 2010], a shed that had been turned into a boat [Turner Prize 2005] and a light switch going on and off [Turner Prize 2001].

The Granby Four Streets estate can legitimately be called highly innovative art - it won the Turner Prize exactly one century after Marcel Duchamp formulated the idea of Readymades as art, which was, relatively speaking, a much more radical proposal. The problem with a housing estate is not that it can’t be considered art but that it can’t be readily commodified by the art market - unlike a urinal with an autograph on it. One would hope that the Assemble project’s strong ethical function is assured beyond the need for debate but admittedly it would be too much of a stretch to label it occult. One doesn’t need to travel far at all to discover some art that fits all of the criteria perfectly however.

Less than a mile away from Cairns Street is a rather gorgeous Grade II listed Victorian building known as The Florrie, a Toxteth art gallery and community education/recreation facility. The Florrie is currently home to a potentially very important and already very interesting house-brick. It’s not unusual in and of itself that a brick should be in an art gallery. Carl Andre’s 1966 artwork Equivalent VIII, a rectangular collection of 120 firebricks was initially ignored but then bought by the Tate Gallery in 1972 for $6,000 - half of the artist’s original asking price. The trouble was Andre, discouraged by initial lack of interest in his art, had already taken the bricks back to the builders merchants for a refund, meaning he had to go out and buy a completely new set of bricks to send to the British art institution. This biographical fact, when it was finally noticed in 1976, enraged the British press and the resultant outcry, ironically, ended up making the work, known commonly at The Bricks, one of the most famous pieces of minimalist art in the world. Carl Andre is otherwise famous for his assertion that Works of art don't mean anything.


The ties that bind

The sole brick in The Florrie is imbued with meaning, even though this is still only a tiny fraction of its true potential. It isn’t as famous as Equivalent VIII, although its notoriety grows and grows due to the names of the two men who left it there - Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty.

The ties that bind Bill Drummond to Liverpool are strong and well documented. In 1975 he worked as a set designer and painter for a 12-hour long drama production based on a series of experimental esoteric pyramid-fixated science fiction books called The Illuminatus! Trilogy. He joined post punk band Big In Japan in 1977, alongside Scouse musical royalty of the era, Holly Johnson (Frankie Goes To Hollywood), Budgie (Siouxsie And The Banshees), Jane Casey (Pink Military/Pink Industry) and Ian Broudie (The Lightning Seeds). He was also (at various times) a producer and manager for Echo And The Bunnymen and The Teardrop Explodes. The ties that bind Jimmy Cauty to Liverpool are less well known but much easier to explain: his parents were Liverpudlian and he was born in Heswall, near Birkenhead.

The pair have shared a fruitful and complex creative collaboration that stretches back 35 years to when Drummond signed Cauty’s then band, Brilliant, to WEA/Food records. Any attempt to categorise what they have done since in a few sentences is a fool’s errand and will only serve to generate more questions than it answers but it’s a story you should seek online [Drummond & Cauty] or offline [KLF: Chaos Magic Music Money by John Higgs] if you don’t already know it. You may well have known the pair as The KLF in the past but today they prefer to go by the name the JAMs (the shortened form of The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu).

What do Bill and Jimmy think of the bricks and mortar that make up Assemble’s 2015 Turner Art Prize winning entry? I have no idea and I don’t care to speculate. However, I do think it’s pertinent to mention this particular snippet from their biography. On November 23 in 1993 the British artist Rachel Whiteread was awarded £20,000 when she won the Turner prize for her large form sculpture Untitled (House). This was essentially a huge concrete cast of the inside of an entire three-story East End London house - after all the bricks and mortar had been stripped off and thrown away - from basement to top floor, which had been condemned for demolition. Looking back now, it’s incredible to juxtapose Untitled (House) with the Granby Four Streets project - so similar in some respects, so incredibly different in others. The KLF made their feelings known about Untitled (House) at the time by doubling Whiteread’s prize money and presenting her with their Worst Artist Of The Year award. And this (according to their roadie and accomplice Gimpo at least) may have led directly on to one of their most notorious actions: the self-explanatory K Foundation Burn A Million Quid which took place the following year on the remote Scottish island of Jura, when a huge sum of money was reduced to ashes in front of invited members of the press.  

Spurred on by the death of Jimmy’s brother and long time KLF/JAMs collaborator, Simon Cauty, in 2016, the pair revisited an old but unrealised project: to build a giant pyramid. At the turn of the century, the idea had been perhaps unreasonably ambitious; the structure they envisaged would contain a brick for every human being born in the 20th Century (a number estimated to be 87 million). This time, after talking with Claire and Ru Callender, a pair of ethical undertakers from Jimmy’s hometown of Totnes, Devon, they started considering the idea of building a pyramid of bones instead. But the idea evolved and they started planning The People’s Pyramid, a slightly less gigantic structure which would be built from bricks… containing the ashes of dead people.

Jimmy Cauty has said that as soon as he saw the ash that remained after the burning of the million quid in 1994, he knew he wanted to make it into a house brick. And after that process was complete he realised he wanted to apply this process to himself. After he died, he reasoned, he should be made into a brick - a process since dubbed Mu-Mufication.

With the help of local artist Tom Calderbank, the Liverpool Arts Lab, Ru and Claire of the Green Funeral Company and no doubt hundreds of other like-minded souls, the first Toxteth Day of the Dead was held during the summer of 2017;  and the first brick of The People’s Pyramid was laid on November 23, the following year. That inaugural brick, stamped with the phrase Mu Mu, contained 23g of ashes, the last mortal remains of Simon Cauty.

Bill and Jimmy won’t live to see the project completed. I won’t. No one reading this article today will. The full structure, should it reach completion, will require 34,592 bricks - which means that 34,592 people need to sign up to the project and then die and then be cremated and then be converted into bricks just in case you haven’t been following this carefully - a process they estimate could take up to 300 years to complete.

There is no way The Florrie is big enough to house the finished People’s Pyramid. Once complete it will be 23 foot (7 metres) tall. I’m not sure how many people have signed up for Mu-Mufication or how many human ash-containing bricks have actually been made but I don’t think the Toxteth gallery needs to worry just yet. It will probably be decades before they need to find a permanent site for the eerie structure.

There is a much more pressing concern that must be attended to well before that. There is a conversation currently taking place which could help radically redefine what is considered art. It is a conversation that will hopefully end the patronising and ghettoising idea of ‘outsider art’ - at best a condescending pat on the head for the un-commodifiable art produced by those who operate strictly outside of the confines of the academy and the industry. This conversation must thrive - with the many on the outside of the art industry and academy inserting their voices forcibly into that conversation wherever, and whenever, they can. This conversation can change the parameters of what art is allowed to mean and define the new roles it can fulfil as the 21st Century unfolds. A new art or an ancient art made strictly for the people.

John Doran is the co-founder and editor of The Quietus website. He is a writer, author, broadcaster, editor and DJ. He published a new edition of his acclaimed memoir about alcoholism, habitual drug use and mental illness, Jolly Lad for Strange Attractor in 2018. His band Self-Help has played at Supernormal festival, Corsica Studios and the Social, London. Their debut album,The Grand Hotel Ibis, featuring musicians from Throbbing Gristle, Coil, Chrome Hoof, GNOD and Teeth Of The Sea will be released on Tesla Tapes in 2019. He is an auxiliary member of the Norwegian avant rock group, Arabrot. He co-authored the work ‘Testimonial’ with Cosey Fanni Tutti and performed it as a live collaboration with Simon Fisher Turner as part of Hull City Of Culture 2017.

Image credited to Cal Hudson

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