23 artists | ‘The Bank’ Open Day Review

23  artists | ‘The Bank’ Open Day Review

By John Patrick Higgins • Photography: Phil Dorman

French hip hop is playing in a room adorned with the severed heads of Teletubbies. A door opens onto a fire escape and steps lead down to beehives (complete with a notice advising caution as “bees may sting”!). The sun is shining – this is not the sort of thing that happens in East Belfast! The walls have all been painted, printed and postered, only the functional tawdriness of the carpets ties the room to its mercantile past – they remain building society boring. Hammers and saws are nailed to walls next to framed cat memes.

Photographer Neal Campbell has turned an old kitchen into a dark room. Harpist Ursula Burns has made her studio a home from home, complete with standard lamp and candelabra (though talk of a baby grand piano has, as of yet, come to nothing). It is true to say that the building has been utterly transformed.

Well, not quite. There are still original features extant: a forbidding wooden “Hand of Ulster” squats officiously over a door-way. There is an impressive “Thief Resisting Door No. 2” leading to the vault. But generally the peculiar fortress-cum-warren layout of the bank has been brilliantly repurposed.

Printmaker Leo Boyd was the first artist to move into the space, just before Christmas: “I was here on my own for a month,” he says, “I arrived before the electricity! It was cold and grim – like a Dickens novel with less plot! After that month, though, people started moving in and it all started coming together. And now it’s deadly!”

His colourful retro-futurist screen-prints adorn many of the walls of the bank. He has placed a large square of canvas on the floor with gaffa tape; the visitors who come in skirt around it sheepishly. “Are you going to do some sort of action painting?” I ask him. “No,” he says, “I just hate the carpet.”

Artist Dawn Austin, whose work is by far the most secure in the building being housed in the aforementioned vault, gives me some background on the situation with Seedhead Arts. Happily for me she is doling out free beers at the same time, and my notes get slightly more expressionistic from this point.

“Adam Turkington (of Seedhead Arts) received a call from out of the blue from the owner the bank asking if we wanted to use the property for a fixed period of time. The owner advised us that the front of the building is Grade 2 listed but that we could do what we liked to the rest of the place. At the moment there are twenty three creatives in the space: musicians, writers and visual artists. The building had been a bank and was subsequently occupied by an Orange Lodge, but after that it fell into disrepair. The artists came in, removed all of the rubbish, fixed the plumbing and electricity and set about generally transforming the building. In the Cathedral Quarter, they are flattening old buildings like this, so it makes sense for the creatives to take over these spaces, where they can find them, to show that they can look after them and thrive!”

“We want to open up the door to the community,” she continues, “These spaces are going further and further out of the city. There really has never been anything like this on the Newtownards road!”

At the end of the evening Adam Turkington, fulfils a lifetime ambition by clambering onto an amp and waving a piece of paper about. He looks like Moses about to deliver the law but, in fact, he reads out a letter of goodwill from the site’s owner and then introduces the literal house band, Blue Whale, who deliver a storming set, sprawling happily somewhere between Can, Wire and Sonic Youth.

When it’s all over I stagger out into the still bright evening sunshine and marvel that I’m slap bang in the middle Holywood arches. The Belfast Bankers only have the building for a year. It’s testament to their commitment, talent and passion that the place already feels like an exciting arts space after three months.

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