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Creative community at Salford's Islington Mill

Islington Mill is a central part of Salford’s cultural profile, but this distinctive and attractive space for work, life and play is more unconventional than many of Manchester’s art complexes. Owned by an artist whose primary objective is the creativity he invests in the Mill and its occupants, over a fifteen year period this social and cultural project has been incubating the emerging talent that in turn sustains the area.

If you didn’t know what you were looking for, it would be easy to miss or misunderstand Islington Mill, a unique arts centre almost hiding in plain sight at the northern-most edge of Ordsall, City of Salford.

At first glance it is a huge, slightly imposing red brick building with a giant, sturdy front door, a former Victorian cotton-spinning mill that rises several storeys high and flanks the pavement on a quiet road, close to the busy Chapel Street thoroughfare. However, Islington Mill is the name of more than just a physical place, it is, according to its website "the product of a singular dream to form a network of artists around the shared goal of living and working as freely and creatively as possible.”

Simultaneously an arts organisation, an experiment in inter-disciplinary practice and project in urban living, the website names it “an open-source environment” in which no distinction is made between work and play, outcome and process, chaos and control, Islington Mill is a space that embraces many disciplines.

The cultural community based there focuses on production and experimentation in and across diverse art forms, including practices from outside the ‘formal’ cultural economy like record labels, clubnights and fanzine publishing. Using the words radical and subversive, the description seems to be of an organisation that is DIY, unconventional and highly politicised, inspired by punk and the Situationist movement.

An open-source environment in which no distinction is made between work and play, outcome and process, chaos and control, Islington Mill is a space that embraces many disciplines.

That this improbable empire exists at all is due to Bill Campbell, who moved into Islington Mill after graduating from Central St Martins and then spent four years raising the money to eventually buy the building in 2000. He has lived at the site ever since. Bill says he didn’t set out to be a property developer, indeed the Mill is relatively undeveloped, but his taking ownership of the building has ensured that the cultural community there could not be displaced or their workspaces demolished.

The regeneration environment of the mid 1990s presented a threat to studio-based practices and forms of creative experimentation that required space to develop, as developers were buying up all the property in low value and low demand areas formerly used by artists.

This problem was identified in the 2009 Salford Central Development Framework, which found that developers and speculators had acquired a number of sites in the Chapel Street area but were “unable, unwilling or uninterested in bringing forward actual schemes for development”. Bill says he felt very strongly that “[the building] should be secured and not turned into apartments, once it becomes apartments it never goes back”. In Salford at least, artists will not be expelled by rising property values.

Islington Mill is a place that appeals to different people at different times depending on the activity or who they are partnering. Its methods and programmes are intuitive. Bill says that at the start he simply asked himself “what are the things I want to help me be more creative, and to help facilitate what I would like to do, what are the things that I feel like I need around me”? He questioned existing models for the cultural sector, looking instead for an appropriate and workable solution with the necessary infrastructure to give it a long term and independent future.

It’s not just a collective site for creative businesses, it is a living network of artists with strong internal relations and it survives on a mix of private and public funding. Studios offered at attractive rents provide some of the Mill’s income, and with natural light and heating included as standard and available on a simple rolling contract with one month’s notice and one month’s deposit they are an unbeatable offer for micro-businesses, who also benefit from necessary wifi, fire doors and so on.

Funded artist's residencies at the Mill offer the possibility of more risky R&D and experimentation, some artists are supported by individual philanthropists and the Mill has local, regional, national and international partners.

The residencies also create opportunities in which artists and producers respond to or reference Islington and the surrounding area, producing new meanings and articulations of Salford’s intrinsic culture which ultimately contribute, via culture’s global flows and exchanges, to the international image of the city and the Manchester region. ‘Excellence’ is the focus for many cultural production organisations (ie. Manchester International Festival). Where Islington Mill is strongest is home-grown culture arising from a commitment to production and experimentation, work which may then go on to be shown as ‘excellence’ elsewhere.

Artists or creative collaborators may stay for a day, for a week, a month or much longer, because of the turnover or move-through of people, continuity can be hard to establish but each new member brings their own ideas and energy.

There is varied programme of gallery shows, classes and activities on offer at the Mill which has recently included yoga, Afrocuban music workshops, life drawing, artists' talks, bric-a-brac sales and film screenings. On Record Store Day in April they hosted a pop up record shop with local labels selling new music.

Many people come to the Mill for what the website calls the “chaotic gigs in our freezing ground floor space” which have included international tours of SunnO))), Moon Duo, White Hills, Earth and Boris, low key shows by Hot Chip, Elbow, the Ting Tings and a huge number of avant-garde, experimental and genre-defying acts.

In 2005 co-directors of the Mill, brothers Mark and Maurice Carlin, set up the annual May Day bank holiday festival Sounds from the Other City, an all-day music marathon that takes over multiple venues on Chapel Street for 12 glorious hours of noise. Live music programming at the Mill has just been handed over as a residency to long-time in house programming team Fat Out Till You Pass Out who are also regular festival partners.

Urban cultural development strategies, which encourage strategic exploitation of a city’s cultural and creative capital, can often seem blind to the creative and vibrant urban atmospheres of informal places like Islington Mill, where the messy business of experimentation in cultural production takes place.

In conversation with AHRC Research Fellow Karen Smith, Bill said its geographical location could be the biggest obstacle to the Mill's development and the ‘not in Manchester’ thing was a weakness, but Islington Mill in some ways reflects the strengths of the Chapel Street area; it is unexpected, rapidly-changing and exciting.

Urban cultural development strategies, which encourage strategic exploitation of a city’s cultural and creative capital, can often seem blind to the creative and vibrant urban atmospheres of informal places like Islington Mill, where the messy business of experimentation in cultural production takes place.

There is a tendency to concentrate only on high profile institutions, public art spaces and consumption based cultural experiences, leisure, sport and tourism. Factory Records, The Hacienda and the Twisted Wheel were places of similar collective endeavour earlier in Manchester’s history that enabled creative collaboration and innovation, but while the redevelopment of Factory and The Hacienda signal a recognition of the impact earlier versions of Islington Mill had on Manchester’s cultural and economic recovery, it also points to their assimilation, their incorporation.

Having outlived some of the regeneration companies in Salford, as they have developed the directors at Islington Mill have been taken more seriously and got better at articulating their own case. In 2010 some of the Mill’s spaces were refurbished with the support of Arts Council and Central Salford Urban Regeneration company. The Arts Council supported their arts programme for the first time in 2012-13, in association with the Chinese Arts Centre. With all of these schemes and partnerships, the organisation's visibility has steadily increased.

The pace of change is speeding up along Chapel Street, new residential developments are making the area more attractive and as Islington Mill becomes more and more visible, it is having to be more responsive to its immediate neighbours too. Following complaints about patron noise (events can go on well into the night) some community socials such as pub quizzes and karaoke nights are now organised alongside the gigs, and a one-day, family-friendly summer festival is being planned.

The Islington Community Festival will take place on 11th July 2015. It is sponsored by and produced with a range of local intermediaries, to bring together Islington residents, members of the school across the road and many other Salford organisations to enjoy a day of music, food and activities.

The community Islington Mill is strongly rooted in its location and has been established with a commitment to experimentation, authenticity, spontaneity and creative freedom. Asset ownership has also gained them an equal place at the regeneration table, as the Mill represents a successful alternative to the gentrification and regeneration schemes imposed on areas by housing developers. It is also an alternative to the sorts of art and culture that fulfil some vague funding remit but can end up being inflicted on communities.

As a geographically significant hub where people, ideas, arts and business mix, Islington Mill is part of the relationship between Manchester's metropolitan centre and producers of original and distinctive cultural goods, but it is important to look beyond mere value production chains to fully appreciate why it is distinctive within the region’s cultural infrastructure.

It is a positive, independent and self-organised place with a clearly articulated sense of its own values that allows artists space and time to experiment and respond to the local conditions.


The Alternative?

With virtually no strategic support in its early days, Islington Mill has developed a resilience all of its own, which is reflected in its flexible and adaptive model. Through self-reliance and the creating of professional pathways the Mill has been a catalyst for the development of an open, diverse and participatory cultural scene in Salford and beyond. Islington Mill may have started off as marginal, but is now taken seriously by key agencies within both Manchester and Salford, Bill is considered a cultural leader and his project is being researched and looked to for new practices and innovation in cultural policy.

For a glimpse of the work of some of Islington Mill's artists, there is a 10 minute film online here: Communities Of Culture by Sean Stillmaker.


This article was written by Laura Ager. It draws on a profile and interview with Bill Campbell originally produced by Karen Smith as part of the AHRC Cultural Intermediation project @cultintermed.

What's the Alternative?

Find out here about the background, purpose and content of the 'Alternative?' series of articles on Platform as part of the Greater Manchester Local Interaction Platform.