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Luton: You can take the boy out of the town but…
would you want to?

In the spring of 2013 Dominic Allan (Dominic from Luton) headed home to start a 3–month residency programme, funded by the Arts Council, ostensibly to look at how to help establish Luton on the national cultural map. In practice the project has far more depth than the Arts Council may have imagined, or the artist anticipated.

The project premise was to undertake a phase of research and development in order to flesh out the 'brand' Dominic from Luton through a studio based residency at the host venue, Departure Lounge. As part of this 'branding exercise' Allan was to initiate a series of talks and invite artists, curators, gallerists, critics and cultural commentators to Luton to engage with the town. Day + Gluckman were invited on one of these day trips and I was asked by Allan to comment on the experience.

Several guests had existing links to Luton, others, like myself, did not and it was with some degree of trepidation that Day + Gluckman headed up to Luton on a day of heavy rain to walk around a town that is often the butt of jokes as being an airport with a town attached. It was, however, a chance to see what plots Allan had been hatching (a good enough reason in itself). Day + Gluckman have been following Allan's career over the past few years, exhibiting him in A Jolly (Good) Show in 2010 and currently supporting him to develop a solo show. Allan's work has always intrigued me. There is something about the perverse nostalgia in his work that feels peculiarly British. The references to childhood seaside holidays (Luton, in some accounts, is the town furthest away from the sea, in this our water–bound isle), the on–going

tattooing of his own body with seaside motifs. And British politics.

The 'personal as political' is full frontal in his work. And I deliberately use a feminist phrase here as in some ways a similar impotence felt by the Women's Liberation Movement in the 70's feels apt in this context. As a self–appointed tour guide Allan led us through his town, taking us to places that have evolved since his youth and some that will never change. The football ground where Allan and his brother spent Saturdays cheering on a team that was at the height of its success, is now battered and faded like the posters of the footballing superstars that herald the entrance. Corporates have moved in and, according Allan, destroyed it, despite, perhaps, the best of intentions. Allan compares this contemporary situation to the impact that Thatcher, a leading bête noire in the Dominic from Luton canon, had on his childhood. His performances as Thatcher in a wheelchair ('Thatcher Thatcher milk snatcher' ringing in your ears as you view the photographs of the performances) are powerful totems of the disenfranchised.

These are highly personal narratives: the breakdown of Luton's manufacturing industry running in parallel with Allan's family circumstances. Luton and Bedford vans, too often synonymous with 'white van man' are no longer made in Luton, Bedfordshire, although the culture prevails. We stood on a corner where Allan told us of his youth, watching as tribal football teams fought battles outside the Arndale centre, and where a few weeks before we visited another battle had been fought, this time with crude involvement from the English Defence League. Another historical fact for Luton – the EDL was born in here. Another cultural fact – there are no–go areas, as you head up to the football ground:

terraced houses forming hidden trenches.

And Dominic from Luton sees this, records this and shouts about its injustice through powerful, strident works that win you over with their humour and irreverence. His love for his hometown is infectious – the sun came out and you soon see behind the headlines to the stories, human interest if you like. In the Arndale Centre (the first mall to be built in the UK – a paean to the mall shopping experience where commodity and commodification joined forces) we headed straight past the ubiquitous chain stores and familiar franchises through to the old market and met the family run Brazilian food stall where, over lunch, we heard about last Saturday's exploits of their 12 year old son (to the backdrop of rolling eyes from his sister) and his races through the market, followed by a horde of admiring girls. This is contemporary Luton, where in essence nothing much has changed in 30 years, where boys chase girls who chase boys who chase boys who chase girls. The cacophony of fantastical fabrics and international food stalls berate the EDL who have no place in this family space.

Allan's residency is in part a chance for him to make new works and reconsider old ones. His practice, whilst predominantly sculptural, is shifting a gear into new territories, unpicking and unpacking quite what it is that makes him tick. The irony of his Thatcher performances against the sales and exhibition of works with Charles Saatchi (who as Saatchi & Saatchi pitched one of the most successful political campaigns in advertising history) is not lost on Allan. It fits, it's right, it's the ever turning circle. Reflecting on the past to look to the future is prevalent throughout. The very funny Paul Young performance: Allan as Young, playing snooker, covered in badges of Young as drawn by a local

portrait artist, – oh the trapping of fame! This same artist has been commissioned by Allan to make charcoal portraits of his visitors: Allan playing commissioner to a local artist but with a sideways nod to the non–art of it all. Allan toys with the vestiges of corporate marketing as badges publicise performances, portraits of 'distinguished guests' are commissioned, local fabrics bought (a touch of Corporate

Social Responsibility?) and Luton itself championed. Local heroes play off the international art world as John Hegley is invited by Allan to perform alongside him as Morecambe and Wise (Hegley turned it down preferring to write a poem instead), Mark Titchner (Luton born, Dunstable raised) talking of craft and the craft of language and logos, S Mark Gubb championing the newly resurrected Luton punk band UK Decay through T–shirts and posters and Nicola Naismith, the Norwich–based magpie of art & industry responding to the earthbound ghost that is Vauxhall Motors as it struggles to compete with international competitors in a flat lining economy. Plus commissioned artist, skip trawler and poundland patron David Kefford, perhaps the antithesis to Allan's practice, making works in Luton – redundant detritus gently woven back as art. Throw into the mix rising star and Romford playwright David Eldridge, invited by Allan to read from his play, 'In Basildon': a mirror to a south–east family divided by aspirations, disappointments, loves and hatreds across three generations – by–products of Thatcher's rapacious domestic policies. Get on your bike indeed.

These are the materials and media of Dominic from Luton, if not Allan himself; these commentators and inhabitants of his past and present.

So where is the line drawn between the artist, Dominic Allan,

and the brand Dominic from Luton? Where do the personal and the frontage merge? How much does personal history shape and influence artistic practice? Now living in London Allan is by default a smaller fish in a vast pond. In Luton he has a rich source of material to mine if the territory is fertile. And herein lies the rub. Whilst Allan's artist persona declares himself the unofficial artist representative of Luton, the town itself raises an eyebrow and turns back to the newspapers (where they find articles on their town crier) and covers his posters with news of the latest football scores. Yet as Allan's career flourishes this 'son of Luton' is determined (and voracious in his determination) to put Luton on the cultural map, not simply as part of a marketing spin for the brand but in homage to his family, his childhood, lost loves and future lives. Like the Reebok boot held high in his digital print of 2012 'Shoes Off If You Love Luton' Dominic from Luton/ Dominic Allan carries a flame for his hometown – and it is being followed.

Lucy Day 2013

© Lucy Day is one half of the curating partnership Day and Gluckman with Eliza Guckman. Both trained as artists, Day+Gluckman have been working together curating projects and exhibitions since 2006. From Museum–based exhibitions to collaborations with old master dealers, the duo have worked with over 200 artists in diverse environments.