We talk to Justin Robertson about 'It's Alive!' at 33 Oldham Street

The Northern Quarter's newest (and first) multi-story audiophile bar, 33 Oldham Street has recently become home to 'It's Alive' - the latest art exhibition from Manchester legend Justin Robertson.

By Ben Brown | Last updated 3 December 2018

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Justin is steeped in Manchester music history, having started out DJing in Manchester at the height of acid house, starting club nights like Spice and Naked Under Leather and DJing with Tom and Ed – later known as The Chemical Brothers.

Justin also went on to chart success with his group Lionrock, and he’s now a regular at the Warehouse Project. In addition, his art has adorned the walls of many a venue up and down the country, with 33 Oldham Street being its latest home.

We talked to Justin about his exhibition, It’s Alive among a few other things…

What is your biggest artistic inspiration? Is it the same inspiration for your music?

I think i have the same eclectic approach to art as I do to music, I try to draw on any source that can help develop my ideas. It’s a non-purist, free flowing method that embraces chaos and chance, but it always starts with a central question or subject, everything flows from that, however tangentially.

Inspiration often comes from my amateur philosophy studies, sometimes from a book I’m reading or maybe a riff from a record.

Again, the artists that I find inspiring can be quite varied, I’m not an art history expert, nor have I studied it to any advanced level, so I feel my way through it. I’m into the patterns of Victor Vasarely and the haunting figures in Geraldine Swaynes pictures, the magic of Marc Chagall and the shamanic images of Neolithic cave painting.

Art can reveal so many mysteries about our universe, perhaps even more so than science. It’s our frail human way of trying to make sense of this odd world we find ourselves thrown into, as Odilon Redon puts it; art puts ‘the logic of the visible at the service of the invisible’.


When did you start making art rather than music?

I haven’t stopped making music, I spend as much time creating noise as I do art, I guess? I just don’t have much time off! I like to bounce between them, and when I run out of steam on one project, I can turn my attention to another.

I suppose the art side of my life has only recently come into focus as it started to have some sort of coherence. A few years ago, I suffered a catastrophic computer meltdown so I couldn’t do any recording for a while, so I took the time to go back to some picture I had been working on in my studio, they were a collection of bizarre creatures from a parallel universe and I quite liked them.

There was this theme running through them, a kind of wild world of the imagination that lacked rules, or scientific certainty. I showed them to my friend Sean Mclusky who had a gallery on Redchurch street in London at the time, and he suggested showing them. I thought why not.

The show went down well and I really enjoyed being able to explore some ideas and angles that I couldn’t with music, the show gave me the confidence to carry on exploring, so it really grew out of that happy coincidence.


What is ‘It’s Alive!’? What is the message?

The show has two underlying themes that I think are related, it’s basically about connection. Firstly, our connection to the world we find ourselves in and in a sense our relationship to ourselves.

There is a human ambition for transcendence, a desire to escape the frail, faulty existence of our biological selves. So, you get various fantasies about downloadable consciousness or the creation of some kind of human machine cyborg that can jet off into space looking for new planets to balls up.

Furthermore, because our senses are limited and imperfect, we are often prone to making mistakes about reality, this leads some people to propose that we are living in some kind of simulation, and that reality is an illusion of sorts.

These scenarios are attempts to separate our species from the world, rather than face up to the fact that we are wonky animals with a deep connection to our environment and to each other. So, I was trying to have a discussion about that to some extent. There are one or two robots in there!

The second theme is our relationship to the objects we find around us, not just the natural world, but also objects we create. Transformation is indeed possible, and perhaps even desirable. We can change our minds and change our bodies, but we can never separate ourselves from them.


Which is your favourite work in this current collection installed at 33 Oldham Street?

I really like ‘Circuit’ for the possibilities of digital painting, it’s a pattern built up painstakingly from an ink drawing. I think it throbs somewhat! I had someone stare at it for a good 20 minutes at recent show.

‘Kensal Green Cemetery’ is interesting, it’s my local graveyard, which I often stroll through, a very beautiful place. The work started as a photograph of a particular hillock on a sunny day, I then added liquid chalk to one of the panels to give it a grave like effect, it’s quite jolly though, despiser the subject matter.


How does it relate to your past collections or art?

These pictures have a lot more colour in them, the ‘Explorer’s Chronicle’ was a bit more sepia with dots of brightness, these are quite vibrant. I’m pretty happy with the balance of pattern and figurative work too, it quite a tight edit which was refreshing to do.


What drew you to 33 Oldham Street?

Well my good friend Luke Bainbridge introduced me to the team, and suggested I do the inaugural show, which is a tremendous pleasure and I’m very honoured to have been asked.

I’m a big fan of Bluedot Festival and I know that there is a connection there, so I thought the environment would be carefully considered and well executed, so you can’t ask for much more than that really. All our conversations have been about delivering an interesting show with some events to coincide with the exhibition.

It’s important for me to have that extra element to the exhibition, something to continue the conversation, whether that be talks, films or just a knees up with good music, and 33 Oldham Street were right up for that idea. The venue should be a fine edition to Manchester cultural life, another chapter in the magical story.

Justin’s ‘It’s Alive’ exhibition is open now at 33 Oldham Street.