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‘Ask for Zippy’: Bill Drummond Tells the Tale of How and Why he Established the Artists’ Residency in a Tower on the Antrim Coast

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The Curfew Tower, Cushendall

Residency:

ASK FOR ZIPPY (1)
BILL DRUMMOND TELLS THE TALE OF HOW AND WHY HE ESTABLISHED AN ARTISTS’ RESIDENCY IN A TOWER ON THE ANTRIM COAST.

Anyone who has ever driven up the Antrim Coast thus through the small town of Cushendall will have remembered seeing the imposing presence of a red sandstone tower at the very heart of the town. This four sided, five floored, battlement-adorned tower goes by the name of the Curfew Tower. It sort of looks medieval, as if maidens were locked up in it for passing princes to rescue or something, but that look just reflects the vanity of the man who wanted it built.

The Curfew Tower was built in the early-ish years of the nineteenth century by the local landowner Francis Turnley. This Francis Turnley was concerned that ‘his’ local people were somewhat unruly, especially when under the influence. So his plan was to build a tower at the heart of the community containing a cell to lock up the local unruly until their unruliness had ebbed away. Turnley hired a veteran of the Napoleonic wars by the name of Dan McBride to be the live-in constable at the tower. It was Dan McBride’s job to capture and lock up the local unruly and riotous.

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The Curfew Tower, Cushendall

Fast forward 150 or so years and this corner of Ireland now has different methods and places for locking up the unruly and riotous rendering the tower out of work. But the citizens of Cushendall have taken the tower, now known as the Curfew Tower to their hearts. The Curfew Tower is on the school badge, emblazoned across the local hurly teams strip and on nearly every postcard sold to passing tourists. In fact the Tower represents the town and its people. Despite this, nobody wanted to live in it. It had no use other than to stand there and pose for photographs while it gradually crumbled.

Fast-forward a few more years, November 1992 to be precise, and somewhere in the Arctic Circle. Mark Manning (aka Zodiac Mindwarp) and I are trying to get to the North Pole. We are travelling with a hand made icon (in the Greek Orthodox tradition) featuring Elvis Presley. The plan was that we would leave this icon at the summit of the earth so that it would leak out love and good vibrations down the longitudes and out across the latitudes and world peace would break out. In fact we never got further than Nordkapp – an island off the north coast of Norway – before we discovered that the Arctic Ocean was not frozen and we could not get any further. Nonetheless, on an unruly and riotous night out on the island we did meet up with the lighthouse keeper of the most northerly lighthouse in the world, who was having a bit of shore leave. We handed over the icon to him on the promise that he would hang it in his lighthouse galley. We somehow thought its power would seep up the lighthouse and be scattered across the world via the beam of its revolving light.

We are still waiting for peace to break out.

On our return journey south, Mark Manning and I decided to write a book about our journey to the North. Arriving back in London I bought a newspaper and in it read an article about something called the World Wide Web. The article explained how this World Wide Web was going to change everything, how we were no longer going to need books because by next year we could read everything on this World Wide Web. This sounded brilliant to me. But the trouble was I liked books as much as I liked new things that scared me. So we decided to do both. We decided that our book, when it was written, could be on this World Wide Web, and that we would also make a huge one-off hand written book that people would have to travel hundreds or even thousands of miles to read. The words in both books would be exactly the same.

So we had this big hand made book made out of hand made paper that would last a thousand years (or so we were told) and it is was bound in reindeer skin found on a sunken ship on its way from Finland to Venice with a cargo of reindeer skins before it was sunk off the coast of Cornwall 200 years ago (or so we were told). All we needed to find was a perfect building to keep the book in, a building that people would travel half way around the world to get to in order to read the book (even though they could read it just where they were on the World Wide Web).

Early on a Sunday morning in 1994 Mark Manning phoned me. He had seen an advert for a tower that was for sale. He thought it was the perfect building to house our book. I went out and bought the paper (The Independent); the advert had a small photo of the tower, a phone number and a price. The price seemed incredibly attractive. For some reason there was no information about where this tower was, but it did look like the perfect place for our book to be.

On the Monday morning I phoned the number on the advert and discovered that the tower was in the north of Ireland. In my head this was its perfect location: a tower built on a fault line of the human soul. It also helped that I have many childhood connections with this corner of the world and that it was a difficult place for people to get to. This all mirrored my dreams about what this World Wide Web would be about. By the end of that week we had shaken hands on a deal.

So we had a tower. We had a big empty book. We had plans to write other books in this Curfew Tower. But then Penguin Books came along offering us thirty pieces of silver, if only we would give them the rights to publish our book. We took the silver and they published a book called Bad Wisdom – Lighthouse At The Top Of The World.

At the time I had a new young family, as did Mark Manning, and neither of us ever got to the tower. So I thought I should sell it. But the reason it was cheap, I soon discovered, was that nobody else wanted to buy it. I thought about renting it out as a holiday home, but to do that I would have had to put a fire escape down the side, which is impossible in a listed building.

During an EasyJet flight back from Belfast to London I came up with the idea of using the tower for an artist’s residency. Artists from around the world could stay there for up to a month at a time. In exchange they had to make work that was somehow informed by the place and locality and leave something of their work behind. To ensure the project was a success I formed a sort of trust with a couple of other people and called it In You We Trust (2).

So that is what has happened and has been happening since 1998 or sometime around then. Almost as soon as artists started staying in the Curfew Tower, they found the big book bound in reindeer skin with paper that would last 1,000 years. These artists started to write and draw and stick things into it. Last year the book was finally full, and it’s brilliant. Lots of great work has been done in the Curfew Tower over the years and much of it has involved the community in all sorts of ways, but this big book, crammed with the work of over 100 artists, is maybe the best thing there. It’s a testament to what has been done and is still being done.

Since 2009 different artist-run collectives or similar organisations have curated each year at the Tower: Void, Derry (2009), Catalyst, Belfast (2010), Eastside Projects, Birmingham (2011), Static, Liverpool (2012), Spike Island, Bristol (2013), Seamus Heaney Centre, Belfast (2014).

Each year we have an open day at the Curfew Tower, where we exhibit the work created by artists in residence from the previous calendar year. This is always on the first Wednesday of August, bang in the middle of the local Heart of the Glens Festival.

We invite all the locals to vote for what they think is the best work of art on display. Everybody gets a vote (whether they’re 2 or 92 years old) and that night we have a bonfire in the back garden and make a big vat of curry. Just before midnight we open the ballet box, count the votes and announce the winner of the Curfew Tower Award. The winner gets a small bronze cast of the tower made by Belfast-born but Cushendall-based artist Raymond Watson.

You are invited to be there next August to cast your vote and eat the curry. Bring a bottle.

Bill Drummond is a musician, writer and artist. He was a co-founder of 1980s avant-garde pop group The KLF and its 1990s media-manipulating successor the K Foundation.

Notes:

1. If you are ever passing through Cushendall and you want to know more go into Kearney’s Fleshers and ask for Zippy.
2. In You We Trust comprises Marcus Patton (architect, Belfast), Susan Philipsz (artist, Berlin), John Hirst (artist, Alaska) and Bill Brummond (currently in London).

curfewtower.com

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