Our guide at Bidston Lighthouse was extremely knowledgeable. He reeled off dates quickly and precisely, throwing out well timed scripted jokes to an appreciative audience that was made up of me (known as ‘the blogger’) and three elderly couples. Over the course of an hour we’d wound our way up the lighthouse to the very top - and laid out in front of us was a breathtaking view. To one side, we could see the other side of the Wirral peninsula, the sea, and beyond that, Wales. To the other, was the city of Liverpool. I could make out the two cathedrals, the Hilton building and the Radio City tower.
The Bidston Lighthouse is the world’s most inland lighthouse, standing 2.4 miles back from the sea. When it was first built in the 18th century, a system of flags was devised so that people in Liverpool could be told about incoming ships to the port. Each shipping company had its own flag and its own pole, and when the flag was hoisted to the top, families would know their men were returning to them from sea. Today, these romantic stories exist only in the minds of those who tell them. Bidston Lighthouse no longer functions to warn seamen of incoming land, but it serves as a home. The Bidston Observatory, empty for years after being sold to a developer, has been rescued by a young couple from London, set on turning the space into a place for artistic imaginings and endeavours, where artists from across the world will come to take part in residencies inspired by the beautiful surroundings and the history of the area.
At FACT, The New Observatory is an exhibition that reassesses the role that observatories have within contemporary culture. When they were first built, observatories similar to the one on the Wirral would have monitored natural phenomena - in a world that to us, seems like it was devoid of technology, intricate observations of the sea and the stars would have helped every day people to make sense of the world around them. The New Observatory explores the democratisation of science - looking at how data inhabits (and perhaps controls) the everyday lives of each and every one of us. The exhibition transforms data into personal stories, breaking it down before our eyes into palatable and tangible works that are symptomatic of the world we live in.
One particular work catches my eye. Recruitment Gone Wrong by Thomson & Craighead uses covertly recorded footage between American National Security Agency recruiters and activists. Automated masks hang in the exhibition space as the recording plays in the background. What results is a strange re-enactment; a ghostly and otherworldly experience as the voices bounce around the empty room. It reminds me of the battle between the developers and the Friends of Bidston Observatory as it ultimately seems to be a discussion surrounding perceived ‘rightness’ and ‘wrongness’.
In a world where our data is analysed from every angle, our defiance against this is political. What does it mean if we stand up and refuse to be counted? Our smart phones listen to our conversations, playing with algorithms that help social media sites sell targeted adverts. We are being observed from all sides, yet perhaps struggle to see ourselves. When the most common mode of self-reflection is stalking your own Facebook profile, what type of citizen does this make us? Perhaps the data trails that we leave behind can be manipulated by us into something more meaningful.
Natasha Caruana’s film Divorce Index is shown from behind a curtain of abandoned rings, Curtain of Broken Dreams, linked together with brass. Unsure about whether or not to step into the booth the film inhabits, I stay in front of the curtain, fingering the rings slightly and watching the film with a shadow of hundreds of circles over the top. The work seems to be a perfect example of what The New Observatory is about - statistics stripped back to their personal stories. Art that makes you think.
You can find out more about The New Observatory here, and information about booking Bidston Lighthouse tours here.
Image credit: Thomson & Craighead, Recruitment Gone Wrong (2017). The New Observatory at FACT, 2017. Photo by Gareth Jones.