Rain rattled down onto the railway arches of Temperance Street, considered the offbeat cousin of Piccadilly’s Store street. We splashed past a throng of smokers into the golden glow of Fairfield Social Club, and upon stepping inside were met by a panel of five girls – our Art on the Sly hosts. They welcomed us so disarmingly that I immediately introduced myself. A few hugs later, and their manifesto printed on paper in hand, I headed into the bizarre, lovely setting.
Threaded tapestries, racks of hand-dyed garments, digital media, drawings and abstract prints adorned red brick walls and a maze of wooden frames that extended from the entrance up to a mezzanine level. Under this, ancient sofas and antique lamps lit groups of recumbent friends playing board games and sipping pints bought in the next room. ‘Room’ being an insufficient word for the giant arched hall. It housed a bar with that carefully curated rustic air that one only finds in trendy inner-city spaces, and every imaginable local brew chalked onto a giant blackboard with fairy lights adorning its wooden frame. Following the arches to their crest, a projection of light and colour splashed dancing figures across the ceiling, grooving in time to the funky electronic beats filling the voluminous space.
Supplying the music was All Hands On Deck, a female collective whose regular nights at various venues across the city celebrate and support local womxn, non-binary and gender-non-conforming DJs as they try their hand behind at the turntables. Their members, El SXC and Kiana, ushered revelers in from the damp night with a warm two hours of Italo Disco. Next up were residents Sophie Hayter and Anna Louise Cooper, who turned up the heat. The expansive space reached its full capacity before 11:00pm, not bad for Art on the Sly’s first party of the year.
Looking back down at the manifesto in my hand, the eclectic jumble of stalls and mixed bag of movers in the next room made a bit more sense. Artists of all style and skill level had found a chance to share their work; sell, swap, donate or simply showcase to an accommodatingly open-minded crowd. Browsers could admire or purchase in exchange for money, their own art, perhaps even with a (consensual) kiss. The girls had called their unique event ‘the Black Market’ as a tongue-in-cheek nod to the unthinkable goal of their project; to make art democratic and inclusive. In an odd sense, it was apt. Just as illicit trades boom in the face of scarce consumer goods, this mantra had easily attracted a crowd 400 strong, eager for a new chance to consume the creativity of artists otherwise hidden in their midst.
The Girls had started their Black Market endeavors in Manchester’s squats and community living spaces, inspired by the communality and creativity of their residents. Such spaces have since been lost and their residents disbanded. Reaching out to Fairfield Social Club ushered them into a different kind of community space, slightly more commercial, but so named after the groups of people that meet there around a common interest. Though this is often for community food markets (hence the array of artisanal beers), the space is nonetheless well-disposed to the ‘Sly’ mantra.
One of the artist’s quirky collections of photography, figurines and pre-Raphaelite prints prompted me to stop and ask what he thought of the night. “Oh, you know,” he chuckled, delighting in the opportunity to meet a young crowd interested in his strange array of goods, “I love it. Anything goes.” His huge grin was a far cry from the image conjured at the thought of a Black Market. I imagined us bootleggers nonetheless, opportunists that had happened upon something rare and valuable; a social club that refused to be exclusive, a warm, convivial space to dance on a rainy Tuesday night, and a spotlight thrown determinedly upon local talent.