|Publications : Chapters
'The ‘versus’ habit: Bristol, Banksy
and the Barons'
From: Gough, P.J. (2010) ‘The
‘versus’ habit: Bristol, Banksy and the Barons’,
in ‘Lest We Forget’,
Black Dog Press, eds. Maggie Andrews, Charlie Bagot-Jewitt and Nigel
Hunt, The History Press, 2011
Little is ever forgotten in Bristol. The historic
enmity between the two halves of the city may be well hidden, but
it is played out in the psycho-geographies of a ‘federal’
city. During the eighteenth century, gathered to the north around
Georgian Clifton lived the high Anglican, high Tory, merchant class,
largely represented by the Society of the Merchant Venturers. Over
centuries they became the most powerful mercantile cartel in Bristol
and the region; their wealth and status partly founded on the trade
in slaves and other ‘goods’ from the west coast of Africa.
On the other side of the city, the Non-conformist, Whig/Liberal
industrialists of Bedminster, the separate town that eventually
became South Bristol, strongly associated with Dissention and the
development of tobacco, sugar and chocolate industries owned by
Non-conformist families such as the Frys and Wills, dynasties linked
to the Quakers and rooted in manufacturing rather than maritime
The merging of the ‘Hundred of Bedminster’
with the City of Bristol around 1900 brought the two ruling elites
into direct competition for control of the central commemorative
landscape of a new Bristol. The built environment is still bedecked
with their claims to the high ground. Two edifices mark the skyline:
Cabot’s Tower, built in 1887 is firmly associated with the
mercantile entrepreneurialism of the Italian voyager Giovanni Cabotto.
Quarter of a mile away stands the 1925 Wills Memorial Building of
Bristol University, which was substantially funded by the eponymous
South Bristolian family, and further aided by the Frys. Elsewhere
in the city, other monumental forms perpetuated the adversarial
frisson. In 1894, the year that William H.Wills was returned to
Parliament as MP for East Bristol, he marked the occasion by commissioning
a statue to the mid-eighteenth century radical Whig MP for Bristol,
Edmund Burke. One year later, by way of response, John Cassidy’s
statue of Edward Colston, paragon of the city’s mercantile
and Anglican values, was erected in the centre. Today, the two statues
stand a hundred metres apart, continuation of a parallel monologue
in the recitation of Bristol’s past. Such tensions erupt periodically
but persistently. In 2006 the city held the great ‘apology
debate’, a mass gathering of historians, politicians and other
public figures, chaired by AC Grayling, intending to arrive at a
conclusive declaration. 'It's time the city said sorry', proclaimed
The Bristol Evening Post, but in the event no clear consensus emerged.
On the contrary, the debate stirred up further anger and upset.
Seven years earlier, with rather less fuss, Liverpool City Council
had passed a formal motion unanimously acknowledging and apologising
for the City’s part in the slave trade.
It is not difficult to see, then, how the mnemonic landscape of
Bristol offers a difficult setting for any monumental intervention.
Take for example its war memorial. Given its speckled history of
internecine rivalry it will not surprise us that Bristol was the
last city in Great Britain to erect its Cenotaph, a monument to
the 6,000 men and women from the city who died in the Great War.
Designed to unite disparate factions in one inclusive act of mourning
it was not unveiled until 1932, the delay due not to costs, design,
or inscription but to its location. It stands on a traffic island
on reclaimed land over the River Frome, a ‘neutral’
spot lodged between the mercantile north of the city and the Nonconformist
south, a tomb to no one on no one’ s land.
As major markers in the urban landscape, memorials encapsulate and
perpetuate memory. The very sites and spaces they command and control
are important. Rarely are they arbitrary assignations, they are
‘consciously situated to connect or compete with existing
nodes of collective remembering.’ Containing and conveying
memory, memorials exist not only as aesthetic devices but as an
apparatus of social memory, as ‘rhetorical topoi’, civic
compositions that set out our national heritage and our public responsibilities,
positioned in the urban schema as the embodiment of power and memory.
However deeply submerged they may be in the collective sub-conscious
of a city, such tensions explain why the rhetorical iconography
embedded in monuments is capable of arousing such ire when they
are first sited, defaced, removed or threatened with relocation.
Statues, their chosen subjects and their positioning in British
cities arouses passions that can seem disproportionate to the actual
investment in bronze or stone. The livid protests that accompanied
the erection of a statue to the RAF commander ‘Bomber’
Harris may seem rather extreme sixty years after the war, but that
is to underestimate the role played by public artifacts in sustaining
certain power bases, especially in moments of contemporary anxiety
or dispute. Power, as Foucault, points out creates its own points
of resistance and the power over memory and identity held by any
dominant social group is rarely left unchallenged. As Morgan has
argued, that which is designed to provide a locus of ‘inclusion’,
also proclaims exclusion, and can arouse disruption from a rival
faction or from discontented individuals.
It is not surprising then that the anonymous Bristol-bred street
artist Banksy chose a provocatively adversarial title for his 2009
retrospective show: ‘Bansky versus
Bristol Museum’. ‘This is
the first show I've ever done’, he is said to have commented,
‘where taxpayers' money is being used to hang my pictures
up rather than scrape them off.’ Indeed, Bristol has had a
‘love-hate’ relationship with Banksy since he started
stencilling on the city's walls in the 1990s. Criticism of his state-sponsored
show was anticipated, but evaporated once the queues lengthened
and the acclaim spread. However, to a few discerning observers and
sensitive city-elders, the adversarial language rankled. It seemed
to strike a jarring note in a city that had recently been short-listed
for European City of Culture; where the visual arts, music, new
media, film, and animation had been courted, sponsored and presented
as the authentic face of a city that had largely re-invented itself
from an aging port into an environmentally switched-on, culturally
diverse, attractive city, hailed in 2009 as ‘England’s
Best City to live In’. So why ‘versus’?
Did the phrase cause irritation because it scratched at the ill-concealed
wounds in Bristol’s civic memory?
Cultural historian Paul Fussell has explored these questions. He
posits the confrontation between ‘us’ and ‘them’
as an example of gross dichotomizing that can best be understood
as ‘the modern versus habit’. One thing is opposed to
another, he argues, not in the Hegelian hope of achieving some synthesis,
or a negotiated peace, but with a determination that neither side
should concede, that total submission of one side or the other is
the only resolution.
Banksy’s exhibition was clearly attuned to the historical
fractures and vexatious histories of his home city. His work is
aligned to, indeed perhaps derived from and nurtured by, the spirit
of dissent that drives the counter-cultures of Bristol. During this
same period - the tail-end of a Blair government and a Bush administration
- there was increasing evidence in the city of visual dissent that
drew its energy and iconography from the stenciled street art of
Banksy and other street ‘unknowns’.
A number of these interventions took the temporary form of signs,
symbols or letters painted onto road surfaces - the letter ‘H’
appended to the words ‘BUS STOP’ for example, to create
the phrase ‘BUSH STOP’,
or the outline figure of a corpse marked with the words ‘IRAQ’,
painted on the cycle path that runs through the peace park near
St Peter’s Church in central Bristol. Other interventions
appear to be more systematic. Some have a poetic air: a doomed pillar-box
turned into a shrine and bedecked with flowers and pleas; others
are more political, many targeted at the controversial retail development,
called Cabot Circus - a rather predictable moniker given the link
between the city, commerce and capital. Guerilla-artists operating
regularly re-label and re-word billboard signs on many of its approach
roads. The forms used by these interventionists are sophisticated
and knowingly applied: the typography mimics the graphic conventions
of corporate advertising, and the wordplay links protest with politics,
commerce with comedy. The same group may have been responsible in
2003 for depositing a cardboard facsimile of a child’s coffin
on the steps of the Bristol Cenotaph, around which were strewn bouquets
of flowers some sporting a typed label: ‘For
Those Who Died for Oil’.
Do such gestures constitute an organized counter-culture or are
they spontaneous forms of anti-corporate tagging? Are they truly
contemporary manifestations of a city that is not at peace with
itself or its historic past? The apology debate was inconclusive;
Banksy has attained the status of canny anti-hero; Massive Attack
still refuse to perform at a music venue named after Edward Colston.
Should much of this surprise us? Such historical disputes mark every
cityscape. In Bristol, however, they are rehearsed repeatedly in
proxy through its mnemonic landscape, through the network of sculptures,
statues and plinths that already litter its precincts, and more
markedly by temporary and irreverent markers that shadow the official
history of the city.
Boyer, M. C.,The City of Collective Memory:
Its Historical Imagery and Architectural Entertainments
(MIT Press, Cambridge Massachusetts and London, 1996)
Fussell, P., The Great War and Modern Memory
(Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1975)
Gough, P. and Morgan, S.J., (2004) ‘Manipulating
the Metonymic : the politics of civic identity and the Bristol Cenotaph,
1919 – 1932’, Journal of Historical
Geography, no.30, pp. 665-684.
Johnson. N. (1995)., ‘Monuments, Geography
and Nationalism’, Environment and
Planning D: Society and Space, no. 13, pp.51 - 65.
Morgan, S.J., (1998)., ‘Memory and
the Merchants: Commemoration and Civic Identity’,
International Journal for Heritage Studies, vol.4 (2), pp.103-113.