The Graphic Art of the Underground

It’s a pretty neat trick, to take a bunch of stuff you’ve seen before, thread it together and give you a slightly different view of the world at the end. But that’s what Ian Lowey and Suzy Prince do in The Graphic Art of the Underground.

The usual graphic design suspects, and plenty of familiar images, are all here. There’s Hapshash and the Coloured Coat and Family Dog’s psychedelic screenprinted posters, Jamie Reid punk graphics, Peter Saville’s hard industrial design for Factory, and Barney Bubbles riotous album sleeves, and they all deserve their places here.

But Lowey and Prince thread together more diverse artists, illustrators, designers and makers to create their narrative, which starts with Von Dutch and Ed Roth customising Hot Rods and ends with Rob Ryan’s papercuts and Naomi Ryder’s embroidered illustrations. It’s that bringing together of the bright mainstream of popular culture, and of  the dark corners of underground art, which make this such a strong book.

That wider story finds ‘the spirit of youthful energy and rebellion’ threaded across the last 60 years, and constantly starting underground before moving to the mainstream.

It’s fair to say that in almost every case, the makers – whether of custom cars, psychedelic posters, punk fanzines, street art, designer toys or indie crafts – see themselves as bold explorer’s of unknown places, largely independent of what’s gone before. But the line Lowey and Prince draw from a Von Dutch car paintjob to a Gandalf’s Garden front cover to a Barney Bubbles album sleeve to an Alex Gross painting to a Pete Fowler toy is pretty straight.

It’s a captivating story, well told, and suggests that some things we’re familiar with are worth looking at again, and some things we’ve never seen are worth taking the time to investigate. If you’re interested in youth culture or underground art, graphic design or independent crafting, there’s enough in here to make this a useful (and in the future, well thumbed) addition to your bookcase.

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What would Jeremy Deller do?

Bouffant Headbutt by Shampoo is a glorious piece of pop. It’s a snotty, sneery punk anthem – 2 minutes 11 seconds of perfect attitude. it was released in 1993 on the frankly too-cool-for-school Ice Rink label.

Now you’ll feel our bouffant in your face

(Bouffant Headbutt by Shampoo)

It’s also the first time I came across Jeremy Deller. He took the live photos on the single’s sleeve. He may have designed the Dolly Bird T-shirts they’re wearing; he produced designs for Covent Garden shop Sign of the Times, and a number of pop stars were caught wearing them. I’m fairly certain he was hanging around some of the same bars and clubs as me – Where’s Jude in Farringdon, Blow Up in Camden and Soho, the Good Mixer in Camden. Those were heady days; late nights, early morning trains, a buzz that wasn’t just chemically induced, a sense of urgency, excitement as the people we danced with at night made it onto Top of the Pops or into Face and i-D.

Those years in the mid-90s were reminiscent in more than just sound and style of the classic years of British pop. And Jeremy Deller’s always been into pop, a cultural archivist as much as an artist: Brian Epstein, David Bowie, Morrissey, Bez, brass bands playing acid house, Keith Moon and posters of Kate Moss.

Shampoo – two teenage girls with attitude and pretty popstar boyfriends – fit perfectly into that tradition. They even ran the Manic Street Preachers fan club, and Deller produced The Uses of Literacy, an entire collection of work inspired by those fans. And Unconvention, an exhibition which he imagined the Manics had curated, too.

I’d like to be a gallery
Put you all inside my show

(Andy Warhol by David Bowie)

Deller brought music and art together even further, producing posters imagining Keith Moon having a retrospective at the Tate, turning  song lyrics into scripture, imagining the baggy scene coming to the Hayward Gallery, a poster given away at Frieze asking ‘What would Neil Young do?’. Posters and prints are a perfect pop medium, and they’re something Deller’s returned to over and over. Fast, out there in public, easy to  produce, and ephemeral.

They’ve been an important part of what I do, too; a minor obsession started because my first real job was producing and distributing posters for the Connaught Theatre. I’ve still got some of those; classic designs, elegant typography, ephemeral. Since then, I’ve produced posters to mark projects and actions; a set of three screenprints for Worthing Pier, a dozen designs for Bedford Happy, posters for Face Up! so good they all get nicked.

So Jeremy Deller coming to Margate feels like an interesting collision, my mid-90s life catching up with where I am today as an artist.

Art isn’t about what you make but what you make happen

(Jeremy Deller)

I’ve spoken on the Social Art podcast about Deller’s work, and referenced him in various talks and workshops. I think our work as social artists is similar; unsurprising as we come from very similar starting points; music, collaboration, pop, and people. So, a couple of times when working on projects or in different places  I’ve found myself wondering ‘What would Jeremy Deller do?’

That, and his visit, felt like something that should be marked by a poster. A limited edition, well printed, but given away and produced as a piece of public art. And nickable – it had to be nickable. Something people would steal and take home for their wall.

So the two have come together in my artwork for Margate, produced as an edition of 100, printed in heavy black on dayglo paper. Drawing pinned to walls, stuck up in shops. Find one, it’s yours.

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The Sacred Duck; the truth is out there

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For some time, I’ve been exploring the actions of artists Tom Swift, Paul Hazelton and their friend Caspar. You can read here about how I uncovered connections between them, an ancient religious cult and Margate’s Shell Grotto.

And that led me to finding an old essay, typed up and pasted into a scrapbook I found in one of Margate’s junk shops. It’s signed JR, Margate and dated 1874 and you can read it here.

Swift, Hazelton and Caspar have today given me access to this set of photos on Flickr, which show them finding and opening a box. It was found in a hidden room at the Shell Grotto, so it seems my research was on the right track at least. I’ve uploaded them to my account on Flickr for your safety and convenience.

The box is now being exhibited in London, in an event curated by Alice Herrick. It was apparently the start of the series of artworks which Swift, Hazelton and Caspar called De-In-Stall, which included installations at A Fete Worse Than Death, the Art Car Boot Fair at the Folkestone Fringe and at the Herrick Gallery.

De-In-Stall included text, film, drawing, assemblage, performance and installation. It all started with a box. Swift, Hazelton and Caspar say this is the last work. De-In-Stall is back in the box, and the mystery is set to be buried again.

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After going slightly insane discovering connections between Tom Swift, Paul Hazelton, Caspar the Art Oracle, The Shell Grotto and an ancient religious cult, I came across this text typed up and stuck in a scrapbook. It’s obviously a more recent transcription of an older document, although I can’t find the original on the internet.

“Nunquam aliud Natura, aliud Sapientia, dicit.”—Juvenal xiv. 321

The Mystical Sciences, followed out to their fullest extent, are of the noblest subjects to which human minds can give themselves. Beyond the measure, rule, balance and compass, and past the line of the pencil: these are the sciences of the mind, more than the mere observations of the eye.

There is a particular and refined beauty and majesty in the Mystical Sciences when applied to the constructions of man, which pleases certain prejudices and preconceptions of the eye, and inspires and informs such trains of meditation in the mind as to show the true beauty of nature. The peculiarity of the Mystical Sciences applied to the Poetry of Architecture which will be found most interesting is that they trace the distinctive characteristics of the nations of the world.

The ancient Shell Temple at Margate is one such construction, and it is clearly the work of refined architects who understand the sacred geometries and the mathematics of the planets, as it aligns once yearly with certain astral configurations – but the Mystical Sciences behind the edifice are considered by many to be long lost, belonging to some ancient configuration of religions and beliefs. The general public, and I say it with sorrow born from observation, have little to do with the encouragement or consideration of purpose, and substitute spectacle for beauty and understanding.

If such members of the public as make their way to the Shell Temple were to study the measure of the arch, the circle and the serpentine passage they would trace the distinctive patterns of the Poetry of Architecture found in antiquity of the Ancient Romano temples, with an adaptation to the situation and climate in which it has been constructed, betraying that the prevailing turn of mind at the time of such construction was towards the worship of the Sacra Anatis. The intricacies of the construction and the peculiarity of the shells turned inwards to provide particular acoustical properties are found only in temples to this arcane and ancient belief (which considers that the noise of Sacra Anatis is unheard by the Oread Echo), which is known to have spread from great minds of the Oriental scholars to the Mediterranean and the ancient Roman philosophers, hence arriving in Briton on the Island of Thanet.

This temple once stood on the banks for a river, and the flow of the river would be part of the proportioned whole: The Shell Temple must not be seen all at once; and he who reaches one end should feel that, as he can arrive at no conclusion other than he has been on a sacred journey, he is now impressed with a feeling of a universal energy, pervading with its beauty all life and all inanimation.

While the belief in Sacra Anatis is at deliciously low ebb in Great Britain today, the arrival of the Italian brethren into our expanding cities, to provide such excellent skills as brickmaking and fine work in our manufactories, may yet see a return of this belief. And what is the consequence? The return of Sacra Anatis, at a time of revolutionary change and given the fullest considerations of the industrial mind, driven by steam, the manufactories and the advance of mass production with aesthetic consideration, and the iron rail and steamship to spread such understanding across the Mother Country and the Empire, should yet be wondered at.

JR, Margate, January 1874

‘Why did you move to Margate?’, people ask

People ask why we moved – me, Mrs T, three children, a dog, lots of books – to Margate: here’s why.

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The summer kicked off with Outboard, a block party in an old boat yard in Margate. Photos here.

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Then there was a performance by Siobhan Davies at Turner Contemporary. Photos here.

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Face Up! with Andy Lewis marked 50 years since the Mods vs Rockers fights. Photos here. We did it a couple more times after that, too. Photos here. Thanks Pretty Green for helping make it happen.

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Margate Meltdown the next week was pretty ace. Well, it’s the Ace Cafe run. Photos here. There were more motorbikes, when the First Night Riders visited the Theatre Royal. Photos here. And we popped down the Harbour Arm a few times, to catch the beautiful cars at the Thanet Classics meetup. Photos here.

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Breakfast Club led us off on a walking tour of Margate’s history. Photos here. And Story Hunt by Daniel Bye was rather special, too. Photos here. The storytellers who own Margate’s shop are a whole summer’s entertainment by themselves. Photos here.

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A short drive took us on a daytrip to the Historic Dockyard at Chatham. Photos here. And short walk takes us to The Shell Grotto, always open – a proper ancient mystery. Photos here.

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The Red Ladies visited town and staged a demonstration at the Theatre Royal. Photos here.

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There was also a great night at Follow The Herring at the Theatre Royal.

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And Dwelling appeared at Turner Contemporary – worth visiting again and again, as the light changed. Photos here. The Red Ladies and Dwelling were part of Summer of Colour which included bundles of other stuff, too. Photos here.

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Roundabout was another bit of Summer of Colour, a pop up theatre which the Theatre Royal brought to the Winter Gardens. Photos here. We saw three shows in there. And in the Winter Gardens in its normal role, we saw Coco and the Butterfields, when my son’s choir sang with them.

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There was more music for the Margate Soul Weekend – with Norman Jay, who I DJ’d with years ago. Photos here.

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Another day trip took us down to Folkestone. Photos here.

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And in Margate, there’s a constant background noise of artists like Paul Hazelton and Tom Swift to keep you entertained, too. Photos here.

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Throw in trips to Whitstable, Herne Bay, Broadstairs and Canterbury, days out at the Powell-Cotton Museum (below) and Quex Park (photos here from their military weekend), art on the doorstep at Turner Contemporary, the Giant Print festival, sandy beaches and chalk cliffs… well, why wouldn’t you move to Margate, if you possibly could?

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PS And that’s without including the fast train to London so I can get to work in Stoke quickly…

Folkestone’s on the edge of something

England’s seaside towns are unlike anywhere else in the world. They were the places that the country’s industrial workforce went for rest and relaxation, certainly, but the mass market that appeared there meant that they were also the places that industry carried out its research and development. Seaside towns are scattered with rusted remains of prototyped cutting-edge technology, from concrete seawalls and cliff paths secured by man-made stone to mechanical marine lifts and electric railways. So Folkestone, overlooked on the South Coast because Dover, Hastings and Brighton have more pizazz, is an interesting place for an international arts festival, especially as it became a prime stopping-off point, as people abandoned the south coast’s seaside and headed for the continent.

There are two strands to Folkestone’s festival – the ‘official’ bit is the Folkestone Triennial, titled ‘Lookout’. Running alongside it is the Folkestone Fringe, on the theme of ‘Future Now’. Both run from 30th August-2nd November, and together, they’re a very good reason for (at the very least) a daytrip to Folkestone. In all honesty, you’d need a weekend to fit it all in, especially as events, installations and interventions are spread out across the town, with some walking needed to get from one to another. Our one-day visit with children was certainly not long enough to get more than a glimpse of an interesting event.

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We started at the Art Car Boot Fair. This I was excited about; I’ve seen reviews of this in London, but never been able to make it (not living in London, I can’t always get there). The idea is simple; well-known artists and emerging artists side-by-side, selling affordable work from the boot of a car. The reality, though, was a little different. Emerging artists and small galleries made all the effort, with new work and a degree of performance in their presentations. Tom Swift and Paul Hazelton‘s De-In-Stall, Heidi Plant and Julia Riddiough (pictured), Bayle Window Lost Pigeon Archive, Quiet British Accent, Hello Print and Sadie Hennessey stood out. Collectively, these artists created a chaotic carnival atmosphere.

The name artists, meanwhile, knocked out work to a willing audience of ebay dealers who were throwing cash at them. At the Emin International stall, a proper fight broke out between two pushy dealers. Meanwhile, Peter Blake didn’t make an appearance, but you could buy a colour photocopy of an old Folkestone postcard with his signature on it for £60 from a trestle table. Now – I’m a huge Peter Blake fan and own half-a-dozen of his works, but even I can see that’s just lazy.

Just round the corner from the Art Car Boot, on the platforms of the abandoned Folkestone Harbour station, Tim Etchells has installed ‘Is Why The Place’, a pair of neon signs, one on the ‘up’ and one on the ‘down’ platform. This work is simple but effective, occupying the space well. We saw it twice; on the first visit, families were wandering along the abandoned rail tracks and climbing across both platforms, unguided urban explorers. On the second, a steward had stopped people leaving the platform they entered on; the work was far more powerful when you could explore the station, rather than being a passive viewer, standing on one side and looking across to the other. And I think people can manage that slight risk for themselves.

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Adjacent to the station, in an old waiting room or ticket office, is a small exhibition, presumably part of the fringe but unsignposted and unlabelled. It’s well worth finding – the work is about travel and journeys and the atmosphere of the unloved space (pictured below) is a perfect complement to the art.

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We wandered along the seafront after the station, visiting the Folkestone Future Choir‘s ‘Lookout!’ before stopping at a battered white shipping container under AK Dolven’s piece ‘Out of Tune’. This bell, suspended high in the air between two poles, is a beautiful piece of public art, and a permanent addition to Folkestone’s seafront since the 2011 Triennial. It rings out over an abandoned space, left when a seafront amusement park closed.

The booklet explaining the work in the shipping container, Centipede, wasn’t available to take away. Which fits – the container was a secret research laboratory, funded by the EU, with a range of equipment monitoring the local area for signs of the mysterious centipede. Secret equipment, mounted on a tuk tuk, was wrapped in tarpaulin. Everything’s waiting to be uncovered here and I like the mystery.

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From the seafront we wandered back into town, through the Creative Quarter. These steep, narrow streets are giving Folkestone a new heart, full of quirky and interesting shops. Somewhere in here (but we overlooked it – ironic in a festival called Lookout, no?) is Andy Goldsworthy’s shop. We did watch Strange Cargo scanning people, though.

We headed for Wilkinson’s, instead – in search of both flip-flops and Hollington & Kyprianou‘s The Castle, art inspired by the idea that as every Englishman’s home is his castle, so he should carry out DIY improvements. Some great interventions in the shop are confusing shoppers.

In search of fresh air, we headed back towards the seafront, walking along the clifftop and stopping to watch the headless chicken of Whithervanes before catching the lift down to the beach again.

We headed back towards the harbour, where most Fringe and Triennial activity seems to be happening. Gabriel Lester’s bamboo pagoda over the unused railway line was closed, officially, but is actually uncloseable so was soon reopened by people-power. Straddling the line and with a view down to the station and ‘Is Why The Place’, it’s a calm space in a place that should be inaccessible and busy.

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The pagoda looks out towards the Grand Bustin, a monolithic hotel with architecture like something from Soviet Russia. Perched just above the highest balcony is Alex Hartley’s Vigil. Hartley has installed a climber’s camp, hanging outside the top floor rooms. This spot, the artist says, is ‘a unique vantage point from which to look out over the sea and back over the town [from which] a lone occupant will inhabit these exposed ledges, acting as a lookout over the sea, harbour and extended coastline.’ That’s a beautiful, poetic explanation, so I was looking forward to seeing Vigil – and I enjoyed the feeling, walking around the town, that there was somebody up there, watching over us. However, it’s not unique vantage point nor a lonely spot, as hotel visitors have much the same view from their balconies, and I’m not sure the work stands up to this contradiction.

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Round the corner from the pagoda is a piece which really isn’t quiet. Michael Sailstorfer has rather won the Triennial with Folkestone Dig. £10,000 worth of small gold bars have been buried on a small beach by the harbour. Dig, find them, they’re yours. This simple idea has created an incredibly powerful work, bringing hundreds of people together every day in a communal activity with a selfish end. It’s a spectacle, worth watching from the harbour wall – but it has also created an incredibly social space, where strangers happily talk to each other while doing a job of work which they know has little chance of success. And that’s totally in the spirit of Folkestone and the seaside town; a place where holidays were an industry, where work is about leisure.

So, with the Triennial and Fringe, it seems that Folkestone is finding a way of reinventing itself, presenting challenging art in public places. It’s certainly worth your time to visit, and you’ll find meaning, challenge and enjoyment when you do. But Folkestone’s still very rough around the edges (it felt much, much harsher than Margate, say) and while that adds an edge, it also left me a little uneasy. A couple of times, I saw locals reacting angrily to the art – similar to the problem faced by Turner Contemporary in Margate.

I really believe that good art (considered, careful, made for the site and calmly explained) can make the places we live, better. And I hope that with events like the Folkestone Fringe and the Folkestone Triennial, we can persuade other people of the power of art in public spaces, too. That, yet again, England’s seaside towns are the research and development spaces for society. Spectacle, yes; challenge, for sure; but enjoyment, shared experience, education, and enlightenment too.

Caspar the Art Oracle and the Sacred Duck

For A Fete Worse Than Death, artists Tom Swift and Paul Hazelton got a gang together. Meeting in an ice cream parlour in Tom’s hometown of Ramsgate (out of the eyes of Margate’s art cognoscenti) the boys (and one girl) planned one perfect job, never to be repeated. De-In-Stall is a joint collaboration between Tom and dust artist Paul Hazelton featuring pop music video director Simon Williams, artist Steve McPherson, colour poet Emrys Plant, musician Steve Graham, and seamstress Beth Anderson. They ended up being joined by the ice cream shop owner, a reclusive ex-millionaire called Caspar (who once owned Gillingham Town FC), who dispensed advice to visitors.

To move from running an ice cream parlour to mixing with the art elite in a short space of time seems like an unlikely career arc. So just who is Caspar the Art Oracle? Ahead of this week’s Art Car Boot Fair in Folkestone (at which he may or may not appear) I’ve done some digging. Here’s his voice, on the trailer for a new De-In-Stall motivational film by Swift and Hazelton:

He certainly sounds like an interesting character; a guru, passing on knowledge, giving insight into the world. So what’s his role in Swift and Hazelton’s artistic practice? Notice that accompanying Caspar’s voice is an image of a duck – not a realistic duck, more an icon.

BvEhvN4CEAAbrFOSome images of the work that Swift and Hazelton have produced for the Art Car Boot Fair have been leaked on social media.

At the last De-In-Stall, Caspar the Art Oracle appeared with slicked-back hair, a duck’s bill mask and a rapid-fire patter. So these leaked images appear to show bizarre effigies of Caspar the Art Oracle, tattooed dolls with silvered duck heads and giant hands. They appear to be constructed in a ritual way, with three artists working to produce the various parts, and to have similarities to the Greek Kolossos tradition.

So – what’s the significance of the duck? Historically, the Sacred Duck appears in Tibetan folk stories (such as ‘How the sacred duck got his yellow breast’). It is also one of the spirit helpers of the Siberian Shaman.

In the 20th century we find it in Hans Gál’s opera Die Heilige Ente or The Sacred Duck, which premiered in Düsseldorf in 1923.

The title is as farcical as the opera: Chinese gods, fed up with perpetual worship and the smell of incense descend into an opium den where, as a distraction, they swap the brains of various miscreants. A duck, historically a theatrical tool used as a symbol for the ridiculous, is a by-product of the farce and ultimately leads to a happy end. There are no recordings of this work.

In 1938, Hans Gál fled to Great Britain, and after internment as an enemy alien, he settled in Edinburgh, where he taught at the University. He became a much respected member of the Edinburgh musical scene and was one of the founders of the Edinburgh International Festival.

Edinburgh is of course well-known for the Italian community who settled there – and for the ice cream parlours they opened there from the 1920s onwards. And one of the few facts we know about Caspar the Art Oracle is that he is the owner of an ice cream parlour in Ramsgate.

So it’s possible that there’s a connection between the Italian communities in Edinburgh and Ramsgate, and that connects the older Hans Gál and the younger Caspar the Art Oracle. Was the recipe for a good ice cream the only thing that was passed down?

The other connection worth exploring is in Celtic mythology. There we find Sequanna who was a Celtic river goddess, and her sacred animal was the duck.

Both Swift and Hazelton are Margate residents, and in this town on the Isle of Thanet, water is very important. As well as the River Wanstum which cut the Isle of Thanet off from mainland Britain, a lost river flows through the centre of Margate. It’s easy to track; it follows the line of King Street and Dane Road through the town centre.

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Just off this line is the mysterious Shell Grotto. This would have stood on the banks of the river. The Shell Grotto’s underground labyrinth was discovered in 1835, we’re told, by somebody digging a duck pond! Obviously it was already known, and this tall tale is an in-joke for the initiated.

The Shell Grotto is either Celtic or Romano in origin. It’s an  underground temple, with a serpentine passage suggesting that activity in this site was connected with the flow of water. Hazelton has produced and exhibited work in the Shell Grotto as their artist-in-residence. As such, he’s almost certainly been inducted into the secret cult around the temple.

So we’re left with an intriguing possibility – a series of connections between Hans Gál, Hazelton, Swift, Sequanna, the Sacred Duck, and the mysterious Caspar. Are the De-In-Stall artists modern-day custodians of the tradition of Sequanna and her Sacred Duck, a secret knowledge passed to them by Caspar the Art Oracle, who received the knowledge from his teacher Hans Gál, and kept alive at the ancient Shell Grotto where it was passed from Celtic to Romano ownership? It’ll be worth watching future De-In-Stall events for more clues.

Great placeshaking project

I love this project from the Isle of Thanet – a great piece of placeshaking.

We’re all familiar with the blue plaques we see across the country, celebrating the great and (sometimes) the good. But this project unlocks more ordinary, but nonetheless still very interesting, stories.

A great way to remind people that a place is about more than the famous people that lived there, and that history is about all of us.

#chumbrella

The problem of how to create social spaces in public places is a well-known one, and there’s lots of attempts at regeneration that fail to make public spaces work.

At a recent workshop in Stoke, artists tried to wrestle with this problem. Sarah Nadin was one of half-a-dozen artists I worked with, and her solution was #chumbrella. Perhaps best known for her sculpture remembering Stoke’s connections with Lidice, which she produced as half of Dashyline, #chumbrella is a more light, agile and nimble approach to creating art in public places.

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Inspired by the act of sharing an umbrella with a stranger the day before, Sarah imagined a place where a distinctive hashtagged umbrella was a sign that the person was willing to share it with a stranger.

During the workshop, Sarah created a black-and-white prototype and took to the streets. It started conversations and got people’s interest.

So when I was looking at my own London Road project in Stoke, I could see a natural fit. London Road is one and a half miles long, but – and despite being plentiful in parks, gardens and green spaces – it’s not a very social place. People in shops stop and talk, but the street is all about bustle as you’d expect on the main road in and out of the city.

So as part of the London Road project, with funding from Appetite, I asked Sarah to move #chumbrella from prototype into production. She created a yellow and white design, the umbrella split in half rather than the more conventional segments, and had a first batch manufactured. It’s a move from big sculpture to being a social artist, so I feel like the investment is in the artist as much as the artwork. And if this idea spreads, she’ll be creating literal pop up social spaces in streets across the country.

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The first public outing for #chumbrella was a walk along London Road. Half a dozen artists agreed to be the first to carry #chumbrella, and they started a dozen conversations, as well as making lots of people smile as they walked from Campbell Place to The Boulevard and back again.

#chumbrella will be back on London Road in September, and I’ll be carrying one as a useful tool in my work there. But the aim is also to see how far it can be rolled out, creating a simple How To guide and distributing the first batch of #chumbrellas to people around the country who can use them. Open source, freely available public art? The medium is, as they say, the message.

An alternative to ‘gentrification’

 

The second theory proposed by London and Palen is based on a sociocultural explanation of gentrification. This theory argues that values, sentiments, attitudes, ideas, beliefs, and choices should be used to explain and predict human behavior, not demographics. (London and Palen, 1984). This analysis focuses on the changing attitudes, lifestyles, and values of the middle- and upper-middle-class of the 1970s. They were becoming more pro-urban than before, opting not to live in rural or even suburban areas anymore. These new pro-urban values were becoming more salient, and more and more people began moving into the cities. London and Palen refer to the first people to invade the cities as “urban pioneers.” These urban pioneers demonstrated that the inner-city was an “appropriate” and “viable” place to live, resulting in what is called “inner city chic” (London and Palen, 1984)Strutton Ground

We all want the places where we live to be better than they are; around the country, I meet and work with people who are trying to increase opportunities, raise aspirations and create more chances to do great things.

And it’s hard to argue against that. Who doesn’t want better parks, cleaner streets, nicer shops, friendlier cafes, more life in public spaces, a new swimming pool, locally-sourced food, good schools, the opportunity to enjoy the arts, for there to be a little more money in the council’s hands so they can provide more services locally?

The problem, of course, is gentrification – when those things come, the place becomes more desirable, new people want to move in, so the cost of living increases. Some thinkers would have you believe that this is something new, a problem created by a new class of white urban hipsters with beards and bobble hats. While they’re an easy target, it’s not their fault.Brighton

How did Brighton move from being a small fishing village with a huddle of squalid cottages around an open steyne to being the bustling bohemian city it is today? A wave of literal gentry-fication in the 1780s as Londoners bought cheap land, a railway boom in the 1840s which brought the town closer to London still, a decline as a seaside resort in the 1970s and a resurgence as the creative classes leaving London picked up cheap space from the 1970s to the 1990s. And today, property prices are high, living costs more than ever, the poor are struggling and the city has never looked better. There was no single act, no one decision to ‘gentrify’ the neighbourhood.

And we see the same in Brixton, too. Urban designers Spacemakers have been blamed for the gentrification of the neighbourhood. But look more closely, and we see, less the hand of gentrification, than the swirl of a busy, changing city. Yes, they’ve transformed the market in Granville Arcade by bringing in new traders, but that was never a static space. It was 50% empty when they took over, and the traders there were selling to a mix of different local populations. People remembered it as the centre of a vibrant West Indian community, but it hadn’t been that for a long time. Granville Arcade was built as a market for Eastern Eurpoean Jews. As that community left the area post-World War Two, it changed.

Oswald Denniston, passenger on the Empire Windrush, became the first African-Caribbean trader in the Granville Arcade (and, I’m certain that if you want to delve in dusty local paper archives, you’ll find angry stories about how the market is changing beyond recognition as these young, black men replace old Eastern European traders). From the 1960s to the 1980s, it became a market with one strong culture, but during the 1980s and 90s, it faded; a new community, formed around immigrants from the Indian sub-continent moved in. And in the 21st century, it shifted again, half empty until Spacemakers intervened, and the people priced out of Camden, Covent Garden and the East End moved their businesses in.Secondo

Gentrification isn’t the act of some person with authority; it’s not imposed on places by central decree; it’s not dictated. There aren’t property developers looking like people managing the Battle of Britain, a giant plan table with a map of the country, ‘move a squadron of performance artists there and a battalion of web designers here’. That’s not what’s happening.

And neither is it the grand task of local councils. Anyone who’s ever tried to work alongside one, tried to secure planning permission from one, ever worked for one will know that they’re simply not that clever. Yes, they’d like big, shiny developments – but largely, because the perpetual promise of a new swimming pool, ice rink or multiplex cinema keeps local residents passive.

In the last hundred years, we’ve all got better off. We all have a standard of living that would probably be unimaginable to my grandparents, to my great-grandad who was born in Brixton, my grandad who was bombed in Dulwich, my grandma who lived in a terraced house in Worthing and walked 2.4 miles before dawn every day to the house where she was in service.P1020273

And we all expect that to continue. We want that to be even better off; we all want cleaner neighbourhoods and nicer neighbours, better parks and bigger playgrounds, schools that do well and shops that sell good stuff. We want the buzz of the city, the background noise of art, culture and creativity, the diversity of experience, the vibrancy of the street, the taste of good food.

The value of places shifts, changes, moves – Covent Garden was cheap when people said ‘Rhubarb to the Covent Garden Plan’, Camden was affordable when people bought land from crate maker T E Dingwalls – it was the dirt, disease and degradation of boutique-central Seven Dials that inspired Charles Dickens.

So places will change, the richest will become the poorest, new people will move in and old ones will leave. If you’ve got a suggestion for a better way than gentrification, a way to make places better to live in without encouraging more people to want to move there, I’d love to hear it. But I suspect there isn’t one, and that what we’re seeing is part of the natural life of places.

 

Endnotes; The Canal, London Road

Sadly, the document I’ve been working on has been corrupted by a virus, so all that remains of this chapter of the London Road book I’m writing are the endnotes. I hope you can reconstruct the chapter from them.

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1. About halfway between Manchester and Birmingham.
2. The same latitude as Bremen in Germany, Petropavlovsk in Russia and Venison Tickle on the east coast of Canada.
3. 3 miles, or 4.82 kilometres.
4. In 1795, after an Act of Parliament made it possible, giving permission for ‘the making and maintaining of a navigable canal from and out of the Navigation for the Trent to the Mersey’.
5. Which had the only licence to carry coal.
6. Incidentally, completely unrelated to his namesake whose Flying Scotsman was the first steam train to travel at over 100 mph in passenger service, and whose A4 Mallard is still the fastest steam train in the world.
7. It can be found in early Stone Age pottery, making it more resistant to thermal shock.
8. Nicknamed The Knotty.
9. Over 130 miles or 209 kilometres of canals, waterways and the Rudyard Lake, named after a local man reputed to have killed Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field.
10. They liked it so much, they named their son after it.
11. In 1921.
12. By now, completely abandoned. Elsewhere this year, Alcoholics Anonymous is founded in Akron, Ohio, the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill On Sea opens and the world’s first parking meters are installed in Oklahoma City. Meanwhile, Adolf Hitler starts the rearmament of Germany.
13. Although there as late as 1971, these sidings have been removed.
14. A dry section remains at Oakhill behind the Cottage Pub.
15. Although the exact location is unclear, it seems the far end of this tunnel was near the Spode Factory site.
16. Near Glebe Street, where it joined the Trent and Mersey Canal. A stretch here remained and was used as moorings by the Stoke Boat Club until the 1970s.
17. Local councillor Andy Platt believes that springs running from the top of the hill adjacent to London Road mean that water was an important part of life here for a much earlier community, too.
18. Jumping from his footplate and over iron railings to reach her.
19. “Barathea is a noble cloth – a dense and heavy cloth of deepest navy blue
It has clad with distinction policemen and figures of authority for decades
And Timothy Trow is proud to wear his uniform
But barathea is a great soaker-up of water
And Timothy’s coat of office has now become a sodden coat of lead”
Ray Johnson, ‘Ode To London Road’
20. “It was lucky for the girl that the tram had stopped. In those times the engine was powered by steam and it would have been extremely noisy,” local historian Simon Birks suggests.
21. Although known by this name locally, it is officially called Coronation Gardens, and was opened in 1953.
22. Known as ‘The Boothen Boat’.
23. Although he was then a community artist, he is now the Cultural Development Officer at Stoke-on-Trent City Council. He trained as an artist in Coventry, around the same time that the 2 Tone scene was emerging there.
24. Ordinary terraced houses, except that each has two lines of glazed tiles running above and below the upper windows, each tile having the words ‘Gold Coin’ on them.
25. Francis Michael Moran, from the 1st Battalion of the North Staffordshire Regiment. Formed as the 64th Regiment of Foot in 1758, this regiment’s soldiers served across the British Empire. The 1st Battalion served in France from 1914-1918, and Moran saw action during the Battle of the Somme, the assault on Messines Ridge and the Third Battle of Ypres.
26. Built in 1920, this was the tyre company’s first factory in the UK. It was designed by Peter Lind and Co, who had offices in Central London and in Spalding, Lincolnshire. The company also built Waterloo Bridge and lter, the iconic BT Tower in London.
27. It reopened in 1987, housing Sir Terence Conran’s Bibendum Restaurant & Oyster Bar.
28. Originally known as the ‘X Tyre’, it was designed with the Citroen 2CV in mind.
29. He argues that post-industrial decline happened later in Stoke than elsewhere in the UK.
30. In fact, there are still more than 20 active potteries in the city. With names like Wedgwood, Moorcroft, Dudson, Emma Bridgewater, Portmeirion, Spode, Royal Doulton, and Royal Stafford still in the city, Stoke is still a major centre for pottery.

Get Up and Tie Your Fingers

IMG_20140718_204252Get Up and Tie Your Fingers tells the story of a disaster at sea, through the women in a small fishing community. They’re living a life which remained essentially unchanged from the 1800s through to the 1950s, when overfishing ended a way of life.

The play focuses on three characters, mother Jean and her daughter Molly, and close family friend (and Molly’s future mother-in-law) Janet. While Jean is weighted by her past, Molly wants a different life, and is inspired by Janet’s stories of work as a Herring Lass, travelling from Scotland down to Margate as she followed the fishing fleet, gutting and packing the fish. While fishermen are always there, they’re offstage, a presence but never part of the performance which has an all-female cast.

But the fishing disaster which finally claims the lives of these men – sons, husbands, and brothers – is the point at which the three women really come together, and through their loss realise that life has to be lived now. The play ends at the very start of their journey together.

Jean is played perfectly by Barbara Marten, who holds the stiffness of her upbringing and the fear of loss in every firm, straight inch of her Presbyterian performance. Sian Mannifield’s Janet is a counterweight to this; a joyous, singsong performance, as a woman who’s lived and enjoyed life along the way, but is nearly brought down by the loss of her sons. Her telling of their deaths, witnessed from the harbour arm, is truly moving.

And Molly, who balances both past and future so is at the centre of the whole play, is played by Samantha Foley. She has a dark, heavy, 19th century beauty which you’ll find in old photos. Her austerity of gesture, and her tough, physical grace make Molly both Victorian and very contemporary.

The three leads are supported by Steffi Sweeney and Erin Connor, leading a chorus of fifteen local women. This is a brave way to perform; the choir change throughout the tour, different in each town. For Margate, The Landmark Show Choir have had to learn their movement across, through and around the set in about seven hours. They’re a constant presence, singing a tricky score but also, often just standing still or sitting in ones or twos and watching over the performance like a Greek chorus.

Get Up and Tie Your Fingers is a stylish piece of contemporary theatre, blending a sparse and atmospheric choral score by Karen Wimhurst, with strong movement and great physical performances. It all takes place on a striking set by Alison Ashton that reflects the claustrophobia of a village, the closeness of a community, the smallness of a family home, and the safety of a harbour.

That’s a life and those are themes that are universal and timeless; and that’s what makes this a great piece of theatre.

Get Up and Tie Your Fingers is at the Theatre Royal, Margate until 19th July.

Stories from pub corners

IMG_20140707_224242Art shouldn’t be something precious, kept in galleries and opera houses; real art. true art, the stuff that grabs you and shakes you and sometimes makes you cry belongs out in the world.

That’s been a recurring theme in my work, so it was great to be on the other side during my last trip to Stoke, and to be part of the audience as something really interesting unfolded.

Potboiler are a small theatre company, and received a grant from Appetite’s Kitchen fund which supports people to try and test new work in public places. ‘Stories from Pub Corners’ is their new work, a series of confessionals in the style of Alan Bennet’s Talking Heads written by Kat Boon, Gary Abbot and Alex Townley. The stories are the kind of thing you could overhear in a pub.

So the six short monologues were performed in a pub, the performers sitting amongst the audience, hidden in plain sight. I actually produced a similar play, an ‘overheard’, for Buzz Theatre in Worthing. And even though I know how it’s done, it’s still jarring when you find yourself sitting at the same table as an actor.

The stories were simple, universal, but also incredibly personal. The cast of Janie-Lou Morrey, Jamie Robertson and Bennedict Shaw all carried their characters perfectly, and the evening – in true Bennett style – moved the audience from belly laughs to moments of touching poetry.

Of course, this was an early performance and there were wobbles, but that sense of being part of the creation of something, rather than just a passive spectator, made the evening even more special. It’s really good to see Appetite taking a risk on the creation of new work, rather than just commissioning existing pieces. Watch out for more Potboiler performances, and for more good things from Appetite’s Kitchen.

Pottery memories

IMG_20140601_133829“I miss the company of the women in the potbanks. We had a good Union, good conditions, and we’d have a singsong in the afternoon.

I did piece work on the bench, on lithographic. When I started training at Spode, I was cutting prints first. Mrs Bolton was the forewoman, that’s what they called them. We learnt on easier patterns. Just before I finished the training, the law changed and they brought in a shorter week. We didn’t have to work Saturday mornings, I liked that.

After twelve months I was put on the bench. You had to be good. Everything at Spode had to be spot on. It was the best. We were all on piece work. We measured how hard we worked in money then – now it’s in minutes.

We started at 8 o’clock. We had breakfast at work, toast from the canteen and there was a boiler for tea. If you work in a shop, you have breakfast before, but we had it at work.

I started working in a shop first, a corner shop on London Road, for £3 10 shillings a week. But at Spode it was £10. At Woolworths it was £5, and nobody every left Woolies.

It was hard work. I was an underglaze sizer first. You had to put on two coats to make the print stick on when fired.

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The prints were all in the print safe, behind locked doors, kept at a certain temperature. Ten prints were stapled together to cut. We had a new German perforating machine once. The instructions were in German and they had to get someone over to show how to use it.

The work for the two ladies doing the Willow pattern was harder, bloody hard work. There were two women on that. It was below glaze work, and you had to work hard to rub the print through the glaze. It took a long time to get the print off. They earned their money.

Our work went to all four corners of the world, and we had visitors from all over. We had to be quiet when they came, no singing. Soon as they went we all started nattering again.

I left Spode when an American company took over. They moved everything around. People were unsettled.

I worked at Sadler’s after, up in Burslem. I thought the Greek Key pattern was Portmeirion, but it wasn’t, it was Sadler’s. The money at Sadler’s was not good and I left to have a baby.

I went back to Spode to learn on glaze lithography. But then Spode wanted to drop my money so I left. It was easy then, you could just walk into another potbank. Except Mintons – I’d have loved to work there but nobody ever left unless they died. I reckon Minton’s was good if you could get on there. And Doulton’s, up Burslem.

I went to Portmeirion. Everything was mustard and green, dark colours. The only white ware were rolling pins and those things you put under the bed, then. Susie Cooper took over and it went up. But Portmeirion was low paid and there was a bad atmosphere. I didn’t know the women there.

So I went to Crown Staffs, in Fenton. They brought in conveyor belts. You did your work, lithographed it, and put it on the conveyor belt and it went to the end of the line to be checked. It was really good there.

But I went back to Portmeirion. It had picked right up, with the Botanic Garden. I was working there aged 55.

It all seemed like hard work at the time, but it was all good in the 60s, with hindsight. I have happy memories from the potbanks, looking back – good times.

Working for potbanks, I still look for patterns everywhere.”

Memories of working in Stoke’s potteries (in local dialect, ‘potbanks’). In the big industrial manufacturers – Spode, Portmeirion, Sadlers – the women were the highest earners, skilled in finishing and decorating the pottery made.

This story has been collected from an anonymous lady who worked in the potbanks, as part of London Road, a year long project commissioned by Appetite with SWOCA and Second Look Stoke.

Struggling to find life in shiny public spaces

“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” Jane Jacobs

Can artists build a real relationship with city planners, regeneration professionals and perhaps most importantly, the people who use our streets? That was the question raised by Beneath The Pavement, a two day workshop for artists who want to work in public spaces.

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Organised by Airspace Gallery and supported by Appetite, the day brought four lead artists together – Anna Francis, Emily Speed, Mark Gubb and me. We each presented our approach to working as an artist in public spaces, which were similar but slightly different. The overlaps were significant, and probably represent the way most artists at the same stage in our careers work; we’re all interested in spotting gaps, all looking to make temporary interventions, all have an eye for the derelict corner, all enjoy a light humour, all find ourselves weighted down by the history of a place, and all question whether more formal urbanism really works.

Stoke’s problems – and opportunities – were laid out for us and the twenty or so artists attending in a series of walks around the city centre, taking us through old streets, abandoned buildings, back alleys, community spaces and into public buildings. That walking and talking made it clear that Stoke has two big hang ups, it is obsessed with the idea that its six original towns can’t make a coherent city, and it believes that its industry is dead. Both of these ideas are wrong.

All cities are a jumble of older places, loosely connected, threaded together across the years but still holding onto their original identities. Stoke has held onto this ‘we’re not a city’ like an article of faith, but, coming from outside, it feels irrelevant. Chanting it, ‘we’re not a city, we’re not a city, we’re not…’ makes no difference. Stoke is a small-scale city, permeable and human-scaled. Nowhere does it overwhelm a person. The city twists, turns, tumbles up slight rises and through informal spaces (not formal squares, but wide and curving public spaces). This does, sometimes, make it difficult to navigate – it’s not a legible city centre, doesn’t move you to a big central space, doesn’t allow you to navigate by landmarks and statues.

The buildings are good, across the decades; there are beautiful proud Victorian commercial buildings, as you’d expect, but also some great mid-century modernism – the curved arches in an abandoned shopping centre, the fine typography on Tontine Buildings, the bold space-age fins of the BBC building.

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These two periods – grand Victoriana, mid-20th century (Art Deco through to 60s Brutalism) track Stoke’s industrial wealth. The potteries which spread teapots, cups and saucers across the Empire adapted well, post-1945, as both expressions of New Elizabethan optimism (look at Spode’s RCA range, for example) and as high-tech industry, manufacturing ceramics for electrics. The decline came later.

And that’s Stoke’s second myth – that the big, empty sites mean Stoke’s industry is dead. That’s simply not true; it’s moved on, there’s no ripping coal and clay from the earth here today, but Spode, Emma Bridgewater, Portmeirion – these are still big names and they’re still be produced. That’s more major manufacturers, all well-known-names, than most British cities can muster. Be proud of your history – Minton, Clarice Cliff, Wedgwood, Susie Copper – for sure, but also be very proud of what you’ve got now.

Stoke’s city centre is undergoing something of a transformation. It’s being given a massive public realm makeover. The work is well-intentioned, and is much better than what went before. If you compare the way the new layout gives the car less authority over roads, to areas in the city which are still waiting for improvement, it’s going to change the way people use the city centre and make it a much better place to spend time.

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But it still lacks focus, still lacks legibility and worst of all, includes too much Pointless Public Realm – space without purpose. The problem, really, is that while planners talk about ‘vibrancy’, and creating ‘mixed use’, and encouraging people to ‘linger’ – they also want to control space. So they try to plan out real vibrancy, allow only certain types of mixed use, and stop some people lingering. As a result, benches are split in two, to discourage rough sleeping, and seating is designed to be uncomfortable, so that teenagers and street drinkers don’t linger too long. There’s lots of space, but not in useful places, and not focused – empty space, waiting to be reclaimed and reused.

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The council’s presentation of this work to Beneath The Pavement was interesting to watch; an example of two world’s not so much colliding, but existing in parallel universes, and surprised by a sudden glimpse through a window of each other. The council know that the work is needed, have given it a decent budget, and are working to a high quality. But in thinking of city-as-engineering-challenge, they’re missing the point made by good thinkers like Jane Jacobs, Lewis Mumford and Francis Tibbalds. They’re creating a blank, neat city not one for people to fill. This is where the artists working at Beneath the Pavement became most frustrated, but it’s also where they’re needed most.

“There is a quality even meaner than outright ugliness or disorder, and this meaner quality is the dishonest mask of pretended order, achieved by ignoring or suppressing the real order that is struggling to exist and to be served.” Jane Jacobs

 

Stoke’s future must be in these spaces being useful being part of life, being filled again with bustle and life. For Beneath The Pavement, the artists I worked with made small interventions in other parts of the city; a series of stickers saying a polite ‘thank you’ for following instructional signs, a sign to ‘Seize Your Space’, a series of chalked cartoons and #chumberella, a shared and social space to keep the rain off (which, I reckon, should become an international movement).

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But all of them avoided working in the neat, new spaces. And that’s where we need to go to work right now; before they become tomorrow’s failed visions of a better city, things we look back at and say ‘what were they thinking?’. The city’s planners might think that, in a year or two, they’ll have finished, that the job of work is over; that building new places is a process with a start and an end. But the truth is, the layers on top of them, the gradual accretion of life and disorder, are what really make a city live. And that’s up to us. Let’s get started.

 

 

 


Nobody told me it was happening…

P1020430For the last 13 years, the thing which has annoyed me the most is when somebody says, ‘I didn’t know this was happening’.

I’ve heard people say this at art exhibitions and open meetings, big public events and intimate get-togethers. I’ve heard it at festivals with 50,000 leaflets, at art happenings that have been on the TV news, at poetry readings plugged across local papers, radio and social media. I’ve heard it said about gigs, talks, books, shows, exhibitions, stunts, interventions, festivals and readings. ‘Nobody told me. Nobody told me.’ (‘But still, somehow, you’re here anyway,’ I always want to shout.)

The truth is, if you want to know what’s going on where you live, you have to make an effort to find out. Art, real art – the type that fizzes and crackles and makes you think, the sort that wakes you up, shakes you about and reminds why being alive matters, the stuff that changes your life – is happening within a mile of where you live. But you have to want it. You have to look for it. You have to find it. Nobody is going to knock on your door, hand you a leaflet, and ask you to come. Artists aren’t like Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Finding out what’s going on where you live doesn’t take a huge effort. Read the local newspaper, online or on paper. Search Twitter, Facebook or Instagram and follow people talking about local things. Listen to local radio. Watch the local TV news. Most importantly, pick up flyers in local shops, cafes, libraries and community centres and look at posters. None of this is a big effort, but it will make a huge difference to your life.

There is a whole industry built around the ‘audience’ for art – there are arts professionals who can provide insight and development and tracking and engagement and mailing list management. But that whole industry ignores one important idea; that actually, audiences have to take responsibility for themselves, too.

London Road

P1130382Stoke’s London Road connects the buzzing, active communities of Boothen, West End and Oakhill to the town centre along a long, straight road that’s full of history, unusual buildings, old architectural features and public spaces waiting to be brought to life. It’s a beautiful street, as the photos I’ve taken so far show.

So it’s going to be a great place to spend the next year as artist-in-residence for the whole road, collecting stories, working alongside local people, and making connections between communities. I’ll be living for a quarter of the year in Penkville Street, one of the steep terraces that climb off London Road.

To see some of what I’ve found so far, you can download a map of London Road’s significant people and places.

P1130397This year-long artwork commissioned by Appetite uses the whole street as a venue. As I uncover stories from London Road, they’ll be marked by the reanimation of unloved spaces, restoration of original features, reinvention of forgotten buildings, gentle reminders of why the road is special, and regeneration from the bottom up.

It will end in the publication of a book. This will be a psychogeographical, slightly fictional telling of the story of London Road, from one end to the other, from the Roman to the modern day. In that writing, focused on one special road and the people who use it, I’ll tell the whole story of Stoke.

You can follow the progress, and join in with the project, with the Twitter hashtag #allabouttheroad or on a Facebook page.

Classic design and type in poster form

As an artist, my work has – at least recently – become about the marriage of type and design to spread a message. So this book, of posters sorted from The National Archives, is inspirational.

Over 40 posters can be pulled out and stuck on the pinboard; you can literally surround yourself with illustration, typography and design.

A useful resource for designers, social artists and marketeers – but also essential for anyone who loves vintage and retro design. 20140604_095953 20140604_100027 20140604_100041-1 20140604_10005820140604_100214 20140604_100118 20140604_100134 20140604_100156

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#payingartists

If you want a job doing, you should pay somebody. It’s a statement that seems perfect, doesn’t it? Except of course it’s not. We all, to some degree, rely on barter and exchange; you help me do this, I’ll do that in return. In times of austerity, particularly, that sharing is especially important; it’s been part of British life for hundreds of years. Meet anybody that lives and works in the country, and you’ll find it’s very strong – eggs for book-keeping, meat for clearing drains, and so on.

Sunny WorthingAnd this sharing is particularly true in the ecology of the arts. I’ve been immersed in this world since I was 13, when I started working at Worthing’s Connaught Theatre. And at every level, there’s reciprocity – together, we can make this thing happen, and in doing so we all prosper and profit.

But like any ecology it’s a fine, balanced system.

As an artist, I won’t work in schools for free: if I’m replacing a teacher, I should be paid, just as that teacher is. I won’t do free design work, either; it may be ‘great exposure’ and ’good for my portfolio’, but that’s a job that needs doing and should be paid. I recently saw an arts group in Australia, unpaid after having provided murals for a local café; of course they should be paid. They’re doing a job of work – decorating or shopfitting, if nothing else.

WritingBut there are other areas where, as an artist, I expect a little give that other people might not get. I have been using empty shops since 2001; I don’t expect to pay full commercial rent, and never have. Yes, I’m using a commercial space and as letting agent, landlord or local authority you could expect a full rate; but both sides know that this relationship only works if we both give, both take.

And of course, there’s an extra layer to this as well. If I’m being asked by a local authority to do a job they want doing – to help regeneration, to talk to the local community, to nurture new jobs – then I will be paid. If the other staff involved are being paid, I will be too.

The difference is between continuing my own practice as an artist, and doing somebody else’s work for them. Nobody pays a plumber just to be a plumber; he’s paid for the services he provides. And (if we want to make the argument that the arts have an economic benefit to Great Britain) we have to accept something similar for the arts.

As artists, we receive direct subsidy, in the form of venues and infrastructure which couldn’t be commercially sustained but are funded directly from government. (That’s not unique, by the way – the arms industry receives massive subsidy, for example.) And we receive money from the public too: the National Lottery is a public subscription which through schemes like Arts Council England’s Grants For The Arts, supports artists.P1020430

And as artists, we are fundamentally selfish creatures; we think that this thing we’ve made is so special, you should love it and want it. I’ve been running Revolutionary Arts for 13 years, and in that time have commissioned artists, paid them to do work, employed them on many projects across the country. But I’ve also organised lots of things which could only happen when artists work collaboratively, letting me use their image on the poster for a group exhibition or contributing towards the costs of design, print and marketing an event. As I said, there’s a balance, between me helping artists continue their own practice, and asking them to do work for me.

There’s one extra layer of detail, even more complex to add, and that’s the art gallery. It’s easy to see ‘the gallery’ as one big type of thing. But as I said, when I’ve organised artists to come together and exhibit, creating a pop up gallery, I expect the artists to share the costs. As an organiser, I receive no subsidy so can’t pay everybody. So that’s one gallery model.

P1110293And that’s true too for many small, rooted-in-the-community independent galleries. They’re small, dirty and while they aim to make enough to survive from sales, I don’t think we can reasonably expect them to pay for all the work they stock up front. Another gallery model.

But then there are the monoliths, heavily-subsidised icons of regeneration, cluttering old industrial towns and crowding seaside promenades. With salaried staff at every level, from maintenance men to marketing directors, these can – and should – pay artists. Another, final, model.

So I’m proud to put my support to the Paying Artists campaign, with all the conditions outlined above – and that’s not just words, it’s based on work, understanding and commitment that goes back a long way. It’s really quite simple; if everyone else around you is getting paid, you should be too.

Some personal thoughts on #wewillgather

I’ve never wanted permanence. I’ve never wanted to stay in control of things I’ve started. I’ve never worried about letting go.

Demo at NestaSo I’m not sad about closing down the #wewillgather website. It was a good idea, it delivered on the investment Nesta made in it, it inspired lots of people to do good things. It was built by Revolutionary Arts, the tiny business I’ve run since 2001, and our technical partners were Fresh Egg. They were from our hometown – it felt good to put a good contract in local hands. We never made #wewillgather into another organisation – it was always just a project, a bunch of freelancers working together. mainly, me and Lloyd (when I say ‘we’ that’s who I’m thinking of).

#wewillgather has helped lots of bigger organisations look at how they can mobilise volunteers, too. I’m talking to a group of National Trust managers this month about how they can encourage small-scale volunteering- even the establishment are interested. It’s a pity we didn’t get one big adopt – the national beach cleans, say, or a major campaign by a big charity. That would have pushed the site over the top in a way we never quite managed. But over the next few years, some of the organisations we met and evangelised to will adopt similar ways of working to the one we championed with #wewillgather. Volunteering is on the rise. Our type of volunteering especially so.

We were able to talk to politicians too, across the party lines, about the stuff we loved – social media, organising without organisations and taking local action. We showed them a smaller, street-level world outside the big, monolithic charities that usually lobby them.

#wewillgather parliamentary launchWe were open, and egalitarian. I’m proud of that. Like Tim said at the London 2012 opening Ceremony, ‘This is for everyone’. In 21 months, #wewillgather was used by town centre managers, Rotary Clubs, independent shops, national cleanup campaigns, anarchists, the RSPB, small charities, happiness campaigners and most often, by committed local citizens. It showed them they could organise for themselves. It helped people take a first step towards gathering their own tribe around them.

Nobody got rich quick, and nobody lost a fortune either. But it was good to have a budget for once, that covered a proper website build, and the time and resources needed to make things happen. That’s rare, and a privilege, so thank you to Alice Casey and the team at Nesta for allowing it to happen that way.

BBC LondonIt wasn’t an easy project at the very start. I wrestled with a technical partner, much bigger than our team, who never really got our ideas about being Open Source and thinking Agile. They were into building big, shiny things for clients, not working collaboratively. With hindsight (and with more confidence – I have that now) I’d have done things differently there. But we built it, on time, on budget, it worked and people loved the neat Twitter integration. Did you miss that? You could start a page on the website from a Tweet. Dead cool.

But I’m taking it back to where we started – Twitter and Facebook. We started good things, and the ideas we pushed will continue to inspire people to start their own good things. We’ll keep the community that’s grown up on Facebook and Twitter talking about similar ideas, new ways of working, good tools for getting people together.

I’m looking forward to what’s next – fresh conversations and new collaborations.

Where’s the artist?

10014578_10151955518951050_850719480_nThere was a moment during Bedford Happy which raised an interesting question; ‘Where’s the artist?

On Saturday, left behind, is the answer. The photographer we had documenting the day was taking a photograph of everyone involved – the Bedford Happy gang, the choir, Bedford Creative Arts production team, assorted artists, and so on. But me, the artist? Left out of it.

Talking to Lloyd Davis, who was helping document the day, we realised that in some ways, that’s the sign of a job well done. The social artist is an alchemist, mixing things up, making things happen, lighting the touchpaper – but a good alchemist doesn’t really want to be part of the bang itself.

But it’s important to remember that Bedford Happy was a work of art, not an event. It had a narrative, the stories gathered by the artist about what makes people happy, which were used to weave the day together.

It used the whole town as a venue, because that served an artistic purpose – to remind people, by using they spaces that they already knew in different ways, that they were special places and that Bedford, as a whole, is a beautiful place.

And it had a very strong aesthetic, a sense of beauty which held all the diverse parts together. (And that worked so well, one lady was overheard talking about how ‘those Happy people’ were everywhere. We were a small team – we weren’t. But the branding was that strong that it looked as if we were.)

So, where’s the artist? There, behind it, underneath it all, interwoven into the fabric of the artwork. So maybe not in the big group photo, but very much there.

PS This photo, taken later by the ace Graham Watson from We Can Creative, does have me in it – because I insisted. 🙂