How Art Battle Manchester's Stockport Debenhams Takeover Breaks Down Barriers

Finest speaks to the co-founder of Art Battle Manchester and one of ten creatives taking over an iconic building to create new work in front of a live audience.

By Martin Guttridge Hewitt | 27 September 2022

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Manchester has no shortage of great galleries, both in the city and wider region. But human creativity is limitless, so why should the sites of our creativity be limited?

Art Battle Manchester looks to push against any idea of restrictions by inviting 10 practitioners to throw down new work in just 30 minutes, in front of a live audience. Friday 23rd September sees the organisation deliver its 20th event since it was established by now-husband and wife duo John and Sophie Macaulay in 2013, taking over the iconic and unarguably massive former-Debenhams building in the centre of Stockport.

A derelict location temporarily occupied by ten before being left alone once more, Leonardo Da Vinci apparently once quipped that art is never finished, only abandoned, and we can’t help but wonder what he’d make of all this. Clearly unavailable to comment, instead we looked to a pair of people involved in this weekend’s event to explain more.

Art Battle Manchester has previously used iconic sites like Victoria Baths (C) Art Battle Manchester

“When Sophie and I met, she kept trying to get me to go to art events, but I kept making up excuses as I didn’t think they were for people like me — with no formal education in art. I felt art events could be a bit pretentious, boring and low energy, so we set about creating Art Battle Manchester, which has art as the focal point and the same energy as gig or club event. It’s art for the people by the people, and has been described as ‘Manchester’s most energetic art event,’” John Macaulay says of the project, which has so far platformed 250 local and regional artists.

“Changing venue each time helps to keep the event fresh. We also love stunning, historic buildings and Manchester is blessed with many. Venues we’ve used include London Road Fire Station, Albert Hall, The Royal Exchange, Victoria Baths, Escape to Freight Island and an array of historic mills and warehouses. We like getting off the beaten track,’ he continues, before expounding on the latest location. “Who wouldn’t be wooed by a brutalist 1970’s concrete cube? We’ve never held an art battle in a shop before so the opportunity to use Debenhams was too good to turn down. When looking for venues we look for venues with character and a story behind them.”

Cookie Love is one of the ten artists heading to said 1970s brutalist concrete cube to get creative on the fly come Friday. A non-binary, multi-functional artist working as Folie Art & Design who specialises in murals, illustration, face and body paint, when we speak they have just received a Developing Your Creative Practice Arts Council England grant to help combine those mediums, alongside spoken word poetry. Before explaining how Art Battle Manchester’s suburban expedition also offers a chance to amalgamate disparate formats, they tell us why getting involved was a no-brainer.  

Cookie Love/Folie Art & Design is one of ten names involved in Art Battle Manchester’s 20th event (C) Folie Art & Design

“I guess it inspired me because the type of art that I like to do is really quite slow and intricate. It’s fine art, it’s a lot of black work, dark work, etching style, which takes months to produce. So the challenge of a 30 minute piece excited me in a way,’ says Love. ‘Obviously, as a face and body painter, you’ve got a maximum of three to five minutes to create a different piece on the spot on a different shaped canvas, or different age. This happens every five minutes, on seven-hour jobs. But I’ve never really tried morphing the two together before – my fine art and my capabilities as a face and body painter.

“As a muralist, I’m quite used to painting really, really big walls, like I’m working on a 30-foot long, 10-foot high wall at the moment at the Church of the Ascension in Hulme. So I’m quite used to having an audience and having to talk them through it and, you know, numerous men telling me I can come and paint their living room,” they continue, not even half-joking.  ‘So I’m used to a live audience, and people watching the creative process.”

While audiences may not necessarily be new to Love, they’re clear on the significance of that aspect of Art Battle Manchester, and its power to break down some of the barriers and obstacles to access the arts world is notorious for creating, sometimes by accident, often with definite purpose.

A Folie Art & Design mural in Stephenson Square, Manchester (C) Folie Art & Design

“I think for the audience, academia is often what put people off art and what makes people go: ‘Oh, I could never do that’. Maybe it’s because some terrible art teacher somewhere down the line told them their work was awful, that they couldn’t do it. I think people having an opportunity to stand and watch the process makes it accessible,” says Love. “It creates an idea in their mind and might inspire them to think: ‘Actually, I saw the way they did that and I could apply similar techniques.
“For me, it’s going to be intricate. I mean, I know I’ve only got half an hour, but intricate is my thing, inspired by etching and medieval style,’ they reply when we ask what those attending the event should expect from them. So I’m going to do a fusion of the style that I would use with my face and body painting, and then bring in my usual illustration style. That’s the kind of thing that I’m hoping to bring to the table, which should be quite exciting for me because it’s not my usual work — so why not try it in front of 1000 people?”

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Lead image (C) Jake Bowden