During the course of the pandemic there has been an influx of street art and interventions across the city. It’s been great to have a wander round and see how the city scape has changed during the periods of lockdown. One of the people contributing to sculptural street art is Tom Lambe. I had a chat with him to find out more about his thoughts on art, his practice, and how his most recent project; Play More began.
Have a listen to our chat right here or read about it all below!
Tom studied Fine Art at Manchester School of Art and graduated in 2015. “I dunno why I started an art degree because I thought all art was shit! Uni taught me that I was really good at art, which I stand by! Haha! I understood the boxes and I ticked those boxes. I found those boxes valid, they are very institutionalised, but as I grew more and more anti-institutional through uni, I understood the critique of the art school, art education and how it’s graded. I did like those rules a little bit, it provided a structure and a system to push against or parody.”
After University Tom was approached by Bury Art Gallery to exhibit one of his degree show pieces in Modern History Vol. 3, 2015. One Million Eight Hundred and Sixty Three Thousand Pounds consisted of sixty nine fake 1st class Hons degree certificates, one for every student in the year. The title of the piece if you hadn’t guessed was the amount that the students collectively paid for their three years of education. The piece was a comment on the quantification of an art degree, and the student becoming ever more the consumer - being the first graduating year to pay the higher tuition fees.
Tom has also exhibited at Castlefield Gallery for the Launchpad in 2016. Tom fabricated the sale of the gallery which included a for sale sign, working website, contact information, planning permission outside and a sign in the window saying luxury flats coming soon. This was a comment on the rate in which art spaces are disappearing across the city centre in order to make way for developers to come in and build shiny new flats. “But no one fucking noticed it, so it was an unsuccessful piece!”
Tom has been furloughed from his job on and off throughout the pandemic, it's given him lots of time to think and welcomed a sense of playfulness back into his life.
“Lock down gave me loads of time and allowed me to do things I would never have tried before. I’d put so much pressure on myself to make art since uni, everything had to have meaning and context; everything had to be pre-planned and perfect. I felt like I couldn’t just do something for the sake of it, time was too precious to experiment and play.
Everything had shut down, art galleries shut down, everything moved online. I fucking HATE online, I hate telecommunications, it’s just not the same! They made no creative attempt to do anything different whatsoever.” Tom Lambe’s finger was raised at this point and held in a fury of passion.
“As an artist or a gallery, you should think about your audience and the conversations that might happen. Art should do something, it should offer creative viewpoints or even solutions, and it should cause a conversation to begin or push things further. There are some works that do cause those conversations, but they happen within the gallery, it generally speaks to only the people in the gallery and the people that go to the gallery aren’t really the ones who would benefit most from it.
I do like the gallery, I see its validity but I don’t think many are managed remotely in the right way, or do what they say they do at all. I think the way UK galleries operate needs shaking up massively. The public out there love art they just don’t like the gallery.”
Play More is an ongoing project that Tom started during the first lockdown, it initially started off with Barbies that were placed in various locations across the city centre.
“I’m a hoarder, under my bed is full of materials and they're not even material materials. At the moment there are 4 boxes of old children’s toys just sat in the middle of my bedroom. I think it started with street finds. I found a bag of Barbies in the street and had to take them home! I was like, ‘you are coming home guys, come on Queens!’ Then I just began attaching them to things around town on my walks. I love street finds, anything that I find I have to ask ‘how can I use this?’ I found an Operation game the other day fully working, and I thought 'this is a future comment on the NHS!’”
“Seeing the city devoid of people and human activity is kinda sad. Walking the dog everyday through town and seeing the difference at first was nice, but then it was just a bit… It just missed the humanity, so I wanted to put some art outside and bring a bit of humanity back to the streets.”
The first Barbies Tom placed had face masks and covid related signs. Later more Barbie’s were placed around Manchester in support of BLM movement. Pretty much all of the barbies have now be taken down or broken.
“Even though I knew it was going to happen, it annoyed me at first to see one broken or gone. But then I began to see it as a conversation.”
One of the last surviving barbies is NHS Barbie which is situated outside the Nightingale Hospital (Manchester Central) has received a lot of attention from passersby, she’s been redressed 3 times in ribbon and a dishcloth, her hair has been pruned and the NHS sign she is holding has even been laminated. Tom also said the fences have been moved and replaced multiple times but she has always been put back.
“They have gone to effort and I love it, but I love as well that people will think awww a little girl has done that, errr NOOO it’s a 32 year old homosexual that’s done that! I like the narratives it creates, the who? How? Why? It’s a bit Toy Story to give these old unloved toys another life, I like that anyone can do it. Put a Barbie in the street, go on, you’ll feel better Queeeeen!
Play more came from building my art up too much in my head. It’s not the thing that I’m the most proud of; it doesn’t have any intelligence behind it. The whole idea of Play More it is that you see it you laugh, it’s just funny. But in hindsight, I’ve learned a lot from it, it was a message to myself, and I think a universal message which many others discovered over the lockdowns, to Play More.
In the early days of the pandemic “before it was cool” Tom masked up some of the statues in Manchester; Queen Victoria, Turing and Pankhurst were a few to sport the look, “my heart was racing climbing up Queen Victoria, I got shouted at by a women for that “Do you think it’s funny!?” and I was like, what’s the problem?!” Pankhurst was also offering a box of tissues for all your snotty nose needs. “I really want put a yoyo on Pankhurst next but I’m not sure if messing with statues is still a bit risqué!”
Tom also used oversized slinkies to decorate lamp posts at Cutting Room Square in Ancoats and also on canal street outside GAY. It added colour and whimsy, the slinkies can be interacted with. “That took it to the next level for me, to see people actually playing with the whole play more, I was like omg that’s playing isn’t it, that child is playing with a thing that’s about playing in the street, oh my goodness!”
“I’m always considerate in everything I do, most things are reversible. Because I’m putting it in the street there is some illegality in it. Is it graffiti if it’s an object? Am I littering? Is this public art? Is this offensive? It comes with its own issues but it is free from many of the issues involved with galleries. I like the audience feedback too, put it out there and the city will either accept it or reject it.”
“I’ve been wanting to do something a bit more full on. Since the start of Covid I’ve been looking at this tracker from John Hopkins which is a university in America. They have a tracker that is a global map with red dots and it is ‘fun’ to look at I think, I have some sick twisted excitement about Covid, it’s like living in a film. I checked it everyday, it became a habit, the circles were getting bigger, by the end of it the whole world was just big red circles, I couldn’t even see the growth because it was just red merging into red.”
This then led Tom to look at graphs for the UK Covid figures which led him to “a guy in Scotland who has a website called Travelling Tabby, he updates it everyday at 6pm, and it’s got all the data! All the NHS stats, and splits into regions. I got used to seeing this bar chart showing UK new positive tests per day. There was one day when the UK hadn’t processed the tests right, so they got loads of positive tests so then the graph just had this one huge line that stood out. I thought that line says so much, I need to put that line somewhere.”
After seeing 50 Windows of Creativity (a project across Manchester City Centre produced by Wild in Art) Tom decided to do something with that line and used an empty window on St. Peter's Square. The piece is a large scale graph of current covid cases in the UK.
“It has taken me ages to get the balls to do this and if I hadn't of done the Barbies I probably wouldn’t have done it. I made a fake letter form the Arts Council so if any one was to stop me I could be like, oh the 50 windows of creativity, this is the latest one! Haha I never needed it anyway, when the police walked by they never said anything, the power of a hi-vis!”
You may have seen it on the tram when coming into St Peter's square. Tom started the piece in early November and it is still ongoing, he goes back every few days and updates it.
“I thought it won’t go past 30,000 and it did, I was like how the fuck am I going to do that? There was a pause so I could borrow some ladders! When I was doing it I was getting cocky and confident as I’d done it a few times now. I’d been stopped by a few people, not many but I was like fair enough, I prob look like a workman in my hi vis and it is weird what I’m doing. People asked and I was like oh yeah it's art…(please don’t look at me!) Haha! A guy came up and said “excuse me can I ask why your measuring blues lines on a window?” I was like yeah it’s the Covid figures. He just said “ohhh yeah it’s all fake anyway” then just rode off on his bike!
One other guy I have to mention, asked me what I was doing so I explained it all to him, he stood and looked then came back and asked if he could take some photos? I was like “ohhh go for it!!” He asked more questions and asked about the spike in the line and what the figures meant so I explained. As he was going he asked my name, I told him my name was Tom and he was like Tom what? I said ‘Oh don’t worry, I’m a nobody’, and he just said… “You’re someone to me.” …I died!!
“50 windows of creativity happened in Manchester, I was pissed off ‘cause I’d had this idea already and I didn’t act upon it! I went round it and I was really disappointed actually. When I read about the initiative it was like we are going to bring creativity to the streets, we are going to use disused spaces and empty shops. I thought this is perfect, this is exactly what the city needs. I looked round, and some of them do have merit, some of them are just advertisements and most are in windows of shops that are open, taking up their window space while they struggle through a pandemic, and an empty shop sits next door!
One of them really pissed me off, and I’m going to write a letter of complaint to HOME for a multitude of sins they are doing. But for this, they have a great piece of art, a Covid government style banner saying ‘no one is illegal’, fantastic, great I love it! BUT WHY did it take a pandemic and an outside initiative for you to put art in your fucking window? They have a new fancy cinema, a gallery with windows in it. But when they do put an exhibition on, they board up the windows or cover them up so you can’t look in from the outside, what is that about?
The fact that there is a statue of Fredrick Engels outside HOME in that privately patrolled “public” private space is a fucking outrage. He’s turning in his grave right now. I like to think it is some kind of sick dark joke that HOME is playing, but I don’t think they are creative enough to go that far! I would love to spray paint “what the fuck am I doing stood here?” But I can’t because the security guard will be on my ass in seconds.”
Tom has been spending a lot of time mooching around town the last few months, creating these installations. He told me about a man he noticed sat at the bus stop, he said he is always there just sat watching the world go by. He started to wonder about the man, what was his story?
“I don’t want to talk to him because it will destroy the illusion. He’s double bagged his bag for life, he’s obviously sensible. Any time it's daylight he’s sat there, at first I was like that’s really sad, but now I’m like it’s quite a busy square, shit's going down, it keeps him entertained.
I want to write a really good poem so I can put it in the bus stop, so the man that sits at the bus stop is always sat in front of his poem.”
Tom has wrote an initial poem but said he doesn’t think it’s good enough and I’ve twisted his arm to let me include it anyway:
There’s a guy that sits at the bust stop in Stevensons square
He’s always there
Just sat watching
He’s got a double bagged bag for life
The buses don’t stop there
I used to pity the man at the bus stop
Now I’m not so sure.
Keep looking in Stevenson square there may be a new addition to the bus stop very soon!
I asked Tom if there is anything else we can hope to see popping up on the streets of Manchester “lots of daft things in the pipeline, I want to continue with Play More” He also has an exhibition in the pipeline that which will take place at Niamos/Hulme Community Garden Centre when it is possible again. So next time you find yourself in the City make sure to keep your eyes peeled you might just see one of Toms interventions which is guaranteed to bring a smile to your face, let’s face it it’s what we all need right now.