Interview: Bidston Observatory

This weekend Bidston Observatory are celebrating the Summer Solstice, with a two-day programme of magical activities from their home on Bidston Hill. We chat with the team to find out more about how to get involved… 

Following last night’s ritual fire, today Bidston present ‘Sound Re-dug’, the bringing together of four artists working across sound, installation, radio broadcasts and performance. From the ephemeral currents of field recordings, to polyrhythmic oscillations and materials meeting in friction. And if that’s not enough, there’ll also be a synth workshop in the Domes FM studio offering guests to experiment and play with the fundamentals of audio synthesis.

Interested? Then it’s not too late to grab your ticket here! In the meantime, we had a chat with the Bidston crew following their recent ‘Mornings With’ show, which you can listen back to below. Read on to find out more about the origins of Bidston Observatory, how the space is used now and how you can get involved yourself…

Hello gang! We’re excited for your Solstice event this weekend. What exactly can we expect from it?

*Varying words and layers from the stewards*

Hey! We’re excited too – but expecting it to be fast and fizzy! The best sort of chaos. Expect big communal meals, deep listening and lots of laughter with a wonderful view. 

Can you tell us a little bit about the origins of Bidston Observatory? How is the space used now?

The Observatory was built in 1866 to measure time – back when it was built, there was a telescope in each dome, which charted the passage of stars. You can see the domes from many places across the Wirral. Bidston was used as a site for astronomical research, but also for meteorological and tidal research too. Nowadays, the National Oceanographic Centre in Liverpool carries on this work, whilst more Artistic Research goes on in the Observatory. People from many creative walks of life – artists, musicians, dancers, philosophers and activists come to spend time at Bidston and work on their own projects. Often, groups come up here to focus and push their practices in exciting new directions. 

What do you hope for creators to get out of booking a residency there?

The Artistic Research Centre is a space where people can experiment, share their practices and get feedback. The buzzword is social proximity – difficult during Covid, but glorious when we can share space together. People who stay here sometimes end up creating projects together. Those are people who not only have never worked together before – they don’t even know each other! It’s magical. 

Can you tell us a bit more about Domes FM and how it was born?

Our website has a solid breakdown on the intentions of Domes FM – but generally, it began when the earliest stewards and directors here wanted to play music somewhere that sounded nice and where they could store all of their records. The western dome basement used to house an IBM Mainframe Computer, where the Observatory techs would maintain and format massive datasets, and the sound in there is super clean because the room was over-constructed to absorb/dampen external sound.

As an ad-hoc approach brought together the essential equipment, the curious legacy of Bidston Observatory as a tool for scientific research and naval power encouraged us to broadcast in a more critical manner. During Covid, it became a space for the stewards to maintain a line of communication with the extended network of affiliates and friends who have passed through the space at some point.

Generally, Domes FM broadcasts on our website every Wednesday evening from eight (UK time). Now that stayers are back it’s a moment to convene and get involved. It’s a non-pressured space to share music, experiment with sound and have fun. It can be a blunt tool with clanging mixes and mic feedback, but we wouldn’t have it any other way – maybe!

Do you have a favourite spot of the Observatory and if so, why there?

Everyone’s favourite spot is different – and there’s so many to choose from! Mine is definitely up on the roof, looking at the sun setting across the sea. Not many people know this, but there are two floors of basements under the Observatory, and many people use the sub-basement to sing in, because it sounds amazing down there! The Observatory was built out of the bedrock – a sandstone ridge that stretches out to the Irish Sea and beyond – and the building height above ground matches the depth below ground.

Aside from Bidston, what other projects are you involved in?

There’s no full-time staff at Bidston to keep costs as low as possible, and to ensure that no singular narrative embeds in the day-to-day interactions here. This also means that folks have other projects and practices to feed into. As with all stayers, there’s a variety of different creative threads undertaken by the stewards. For example, some of them currently focus on music and sound creation, carpentry, theatre and radio broadcasting. This range feeds into the building itself as well and hopefully encourages a layering of perspectives.

What was the last record you bought?

Tom’s taken the lead on this Q…

I honestly can’t remember the last specific record – but a lot of my purchases come from Rewind Forward down in Bristol, and a recent one that sticks in the memory is the latest compilation from Baroque Sunburst; curveball low-slung club tracks. Otherwise, I’ve just preordered a Time Is Away compilation which was mainly collated from my favourite tape from last year (or the year before), entitled Ballads.

A necessary mention here goes to the Domes FM basement studio, which currently houses all of Ed’s record collection over the twenty years. There’s endless discoveries down there, and we (Maeve/Tom) are digging out things to play from there every Wednesday. My favourite discovery from a Domes guest (shouts to Angelo) was the incredible vocal work of Demetrio Stratos, an Italian vocalist who creates mesmerising and fun compositions which seem (to me) to be childlike and full of joy.

What else do you have planned for 2022?

We’ve just launched a brand new sparkly website – which has been in the pipeline for a fair few months. Big thank you to SPREEENG (Carlos Romo-Melgar & John Phillip-Sage) who designed the front-end, putting form to our dynamic and erratic ideas – and to Simon Wilson who made a super clean back-end for us to customise and update the website moving forward.

We also occasionally put events on as an organisation, just like the Summer Solstice Celebration taking place this weekend (June 24-26, 2022)  – Spellcraft & Poetry is always really popular, as is our Annual General Exchange. That’s a week-long gathering between Halloween and Bonfire Night where people make super generous offers and share practices. We cook together, study together – and at this moment, it’s possible to give input about the way BOARC is run and to help steer it for the coming year.

But most of the plans are made by stayers at the Observatory themselves! The day-to-day work is based around maintaining a listed building, and introducing new stayers to the space. As we’re getting more well known, we have bigger groups coming through who respond to the space in gorgeous ways – from sound healing, to writing and poetry workshops, to gatherings for deep-unlearning of colonialisms. We can’t wait to see what new stayers bring!

To find out more about how to book a stay at Bidston, have a read here. In the meantime, join them for their Summer Solstice celebrations this weekend!