The Allure of Failure

 

Unit 87, lower level, Castle Market. As I listen to the banter of passers by amidst the misplaced music playing out over the loudspeakers, I get a sense of impending doom. The digital countdown display featured in the entrance to the building is a stark reminder of this building’s closure, and many references to the building’s end, its death, are made as people mosey on about their consumer business. Earlier this morning I began cleaning the desk, cabinets and windows in unit 87, which I am to occupy for six weeks as artist in residence. Attracting the attention of passers-by, the building and its finite existence provided a backdrop for what immediately seemed like a futile and pointless act. One woman walked towards me and cockily remarked “Don’t bother love, they will be pulling it down soon.” She laughed, I laughed, and then she rattled on down the echoey hall. It seemed like a meaningful encounter. (7th October 2013, Castle Market Residency)

As a Sheffield dweller, I cannot say that I often ventured to Castle Market prior to embarking on this project almost two years ago. I do not hold nostalgic ties to the place, I have no memory of its heyday, and I did not buy my fruit and vegetables from there either. Therefore, I am certainly in no position as a consumer to have strong opinions on the subject of its closure. As an artist however, I think very differently about the significance of this building. Had Castle Market been successful in its attempt for Listed Building Status in 2010, I would probably have not initiated this project. The allure and drive was always due to the social, cultural, historical and political circumstances surrounding the impending destruction of both the building and the unique microcosm situated within. The building for me represents amongst other things utopian ideology, experimental consumer culture, freedom of expression, and the pride once attributed to Sheffield’s working class. It was built for a society that had not yet experienced the digital age, gender equality or Thatcherism. It represents an era of dynamic and conceptually driven architecture that was to shape the post-war era.

Traditionally, markets are meeting places for local people as well as a centre for trade. During the Middle Ages markets initiated aspects of urbanization, providing an outlet for local produce in registered cities and towns across Britain and beyond. They were the beating heart of the urban sprawl, a bubbling scurry of bartering, gossip and commerce. Today, electronic and digital technologies have reduced the need for people to share physical spaces, and communities dispersed across the globe can now ‘share a new kind of urbanization’(1) providing they have access to technology. Shopping online is a revolutionary invention allowing individuals, especially those without a car, to purchase and receive goods without the logistical hassle of actually going shopping. Supermarket chains have increased in recent years, and in the 1990s we saw the arrival of stores such as Aldi and Lidl, who were able to successfully rival the low prices of city markets whilst delivering high quality produce and providing a free parking space. Food trends have changed in line with globalisation, and artisan and continental products rival the demand for traditional cuts of meat and seasonal vegetables. You can now find the crowds that once flocked to the vibrant market place in supermarket chains and shopping malls.

Marxist Henri Lefebvre states in his book The Urban Revolution that ‘urbanization was central to the survival of capitalism and therefore bound to become a crucial focus of political and class struggle’(2). Castle Market and the antiquated lifestyle it came to represent was a casualty of late capitalism and the neoliberalist movement that transformed the North of England in the late 20th Century. Over the past three decades, social structures of value and power have shifted dramatically, changing ideas relating to the city more generally(3). As class power has been restored to the rich elites, consideration and respect for the working classes and their rights in the city have diminished(4). For example, when I screened my film After (2013) and presented these ideas to an audience in Mexico City earlier this year, there was a deep sense that society had seen the same shift in power yet in a much more pronounced way. It is no revelation that the use of urban space evolves under capitalism because of the need for constant expansion through the investment of surplus value. This constant need for growth has in recent years pushed many local councils to reconsider the role of their traditional marketplace, which due to their historical significance are built on prime city-centre land ripe for privatization.

If we scratch below the surface of the aging facade, a deeper understanding of Castle Market can be revealed. For example, the determined end of this public building sits in stark contrast to the economic crisis that surrounds it. As the economy crumbles in a manner akin to the concrete forming this bulky modernist mess, for some there is no visible end to financial suffering in the 21st Century. Castle Market functions as an important centre that caters for a community of those most affected by this global crisis. Redevelopment and gentrification projects initiated by the middle classes act as distractions from this reality. (14th October 2013, Castle Market Residency)

It has been said that Brutalist ideology failed working class society, however the Brutalist structure of Castle Market worked beautifully in terms of its social ideology. The trader / consumer community that existed in Castle Market was established and maintained over decades. The majority of customers just before the closure were elderly pensioners, who religiously left the isolation of their homes for a ‘natter’ at Sharon’s or Sallie’s. I witnessed working class families of all backgrounds who shopped with their children, young mums with push chairs surrounded by friends, groups of men on their lunch break from local factories and building sites, and dozens of amateur photographers and tourists documenting this place as an infamous and unique 1960s spectacle. I encountered many people suffering from mental illness, in addition to extremely impoverished individuals who relied on Castle Market as a safe place they could frequent freely without judgement. In the six weeks that I occupied unit 87, I would go to Sallie’s cafe and be warmly welcomed by this eclectic cross section of people. Their banter, camaraderie, humour, knowledge and respect was a rare and unique experience that has all but gone from the bland corporate city life I have become accustomed to. I realize that I was just a glorified tourist with a small insight in to life at Castle Market, but in this short period I became swept up in a wonderfully diverse and interesting community that did not want to leave and has since been displaced.

Walking through this building is like walking through a printed photograph. It represents an endless, deteriorating present, fixed at the time of its creation only to degrade as if tethered to a fragile paper surface. (21st October 2013, Castle Market Residency)

The artwork developed from my six week residency seeks to immortalize Castle Market as an unintentional monument. In its final breaths, Castle Market clutched hopelessly to the past as a relic that is sadly no longer relevant in the 21st Century. It was an exceptional example of a dying breed of trading establishments built as a utopian tribute to the working class of Sheffield. Some traders struggle on in the newly built and comparatively bland Moor Market, and new traders have begun to fill the stalls left empty due to rent increases. Cafe outlets are constructed as fast food counters, catering for a broader, more transient footfall. You can find artisan breads, continental deli produce and organic goods amongst some of the more established counters, which aim to draw in more affluent communities that will help to keep business going. The Moor has been transformed, whilst Castle Market and the surrounding area stands empty, awaiting the bulldozers. In a few years time, an old castle ruin will form the centre of a gentrified financial district.

 

Victoria Lucas
July 2014

Footnotes
 (1) Malcolm Miles (1997) Art Space and the City: Public art and Urban Futures, Routledge, London
 (2) David Harvey (2008), The Right to The City, in New Left Review, Vol. 53, p.23
(3)  Malcolm Miles, op. cit.
(4)  David Harvey, op. cit. p.53