Unmade Work: Other Eden

As I clear out my studio, I’m reminded of work that was unfinished, unmade or sometimes wilfully undone.

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On a brief residency in Penrith, I was working on making Other Eden, a pack of cards, each one about an interesting but overlooked local place, custom, or theme. The cards would be used by local shops and cafes to playfully guide visitors off the beaten track and away from familiar paths. (‘Pick a card, any card…’) They’d also be used by the local NHS, facing a recruitment crisis, to show people that the area was interesting enough to be worth moving to.

Sadly, only three images are left – they’re in the slideshow above. The cards featured interesting places crowdsourced from locals (a swimming pool, cafes, a great bookshop), alongside things I’d found through my own research, like the connections of James Joyce, TS Eliot and Kathleen Raine to the town. Other Eden was rejected (by an awful arts organisation I was working with who are based in the town) and remains unmade.

As part of my research, I also made a zine, exploring Penrith’s rich cultural history.  Apart from a couple of artist’s proofs, it has also remained unpublished.

This is an early draft – so there are a couple of things I’d remove, a couple of minor typos, and it doesn’t mention TS Eliot’s stay in the town which I’d add. It starts to head in some interesting directions which, with time, I’d have explored further.

Consider it a sketch, not a finished painting.

Download the Penrith Reader 0.2  (pdf) It should be printed as an A6, folded and stitched booklet.

 

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The Turner Prize is coming to Margate

In 2019, the Turner Prize hits the regions again – and while it’s recently gone to big cities like Glasgow (population 600,000 – 1,000,000) and Hull (population 260,000) this time, it’s coming to Turner Contemporary, Margate (population 40,000).

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A big show in a small town will have a huge impact; in Glasgow the show attracted 75,000 visitors, at the Baltic in Gateshead 149,770, and it’s reasonable to expect more in a venue only 1.5 hours from London by train. And especially, in a place that already fills with London visitors every weekend. Turner Contemporary has been an incredible success, and its most successful show was Grayson Perry’s Provincial Punk, with 192,177 visitors – so that’s the target to beat.

The Turner Prize comes at a key time for Turner Contemporary, too. Opened in 2011, visitor numbers would be expected to drop off a little about now – Dreamland’s two reopenings (first in 2015, then again while still in administration in 2017) have undoubtedly helped keep numbers up for the gallery, so an extra publicity boost in 2019 is a good thing.

The gallery are keen to look for a long-term impact from the Turner Prize, and are keen to engage local people in a conversation about how to maximise the show’s impact. It’s worth remembering that Turner Contemporary owes its success to a local ecology of cafes, small independent galleries, boutiques and vintage shops that mean a two hour gallery visit can easily become a weekend stay. Day trippers are bad for the economy: they typically cost more to attract and to service than they spend locally. So making Margate a place where you can spend a weekend is vital to both the gallery’s and the area’s long term success.

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The first open conversation about the Turner Prize was held at Turner Contemporary yesterday. About forty people attended, representing a mix of local authorities, arts organisations, and visitor attractions. It was clear from the attendance that the show was attracting interest from Canterbury, and the wider East Kent area. Artists were keen to be in the room, and were vocal contributors. There were notable local absences, too – nobody from Dreamland, for example.

 

The conversation took the (dreaded) World Cafe format – where you sit around tables, have a guided discussion around a central proposition, write your thoughts on the tablecloth and then move to the next table and the next proposition. I can see there are merits to this methodology; but it’s used at every Turner Contemporary event, and the central propositions are never strong enough for a real debate. Can anyone argue strongly around ‘People of all backgrounds should be able to thrive’?

Having spent 17 years attending meetings very much like this, I’m always amazed by the lack of ambition these events bring out. Most of the discussion focused on things so obvious, it’s hard to believe they’re being discussed and not done. We should ensure visitors can find other attractions, we should link up with nearby attractions, we should ensure local people come to the gallery, we should welcome people at the station and so on. Well, yes.

The Turner Prize has the possibility of being a big gear change for Turner Contemporary and everyone involved in the local creative ecology. It also has the potential to misfire, as it’s always controversial – the potential to accelerate the way property funds are buying up the area and do real damage to affordable living locally – and perhaps worst, the potential to just be another show at Turner, which many local people still don’t visit.

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So – in the spirit of starting a proper conversation, here are my ambitions for Turner Contemporary and the Turner Prize. This isn’t a costed, prepared plan – it’s a quick response to yesterday’s event. And it’s not everything; of course we should join up with other local attractions (Margate Caves open their new visitor centre in 2019), encourage more local people to visit and so on. That’s all a given. But here’s some ambition.

1. More Turner, everywhere

Turner Contemporary is a charity, established to stimulate Margate’s culture-led regeneration. That’s worked, and there’s a vibrant creative ecology around Margate – but it’s fragile. Rent is already going up; artists are already leaving. Currently, Thanet District Council is undergoing a massive asset disposal – small buildings, workshops, and anything not needed for core service delivery is going. So here’s the idea: Turner Contemporary should become the preferred new owner for any assets being disposed of. Between now and the Turner Prize, Turner Contemporary should take on a range of buildings around the town. Some can be let as studios or workshops, some as residential space for artists, some let commercially to generate extra income, some run as Turner Contemporary satellites. For example, as Northdown Road’s footfall is growing, a Costa has opened. Turner Contemporary has driven that footfall – it should be a Turner Contemporary coffee shop that reaps the rewards. A bold move, but acts like this would create additional income streams, and maintain, preserve and enhance the ecology around Turner Contemporary, and make sure it doesn’t become a victim of its own success: a gallery surrounded by Costa, Cath Kidston and White Stuff isn’t worth a weekend stay.

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2. Everyone’s connected to Turner

Turner Contemporary should become the major training body in Margate. It shouldn’t just train people in unambitious ways, to be volunteers in their own gallery; it should support proper job training across the area. Coffee shops would have Turner Contemporary-supported baristas, cafes would have Turner Contemporary trained chefs, shop staff will attend subsidised Turner Contemporary training courses, teaching assistants and nursery staff will be taught at Turner Contemporary, and local electricians will learn new specialist skills with the gallery’s help. At the same time, Turner Contemporary should develop apprenticeships in all the roles it needs, from Front of House to maintenance. Again, this is about that ecology: Turner Contemporary’s success is because of the Old Town, the lower High Street, and increasingly Northdown Road. If you’re attracting visitors to Turner Contemporary, your customer care extends outside the gallery to all those places, so making them good is protecting your name and reputation. And at the same time, you’re ensuring that young people locally have good quality jobs, and real prospects. In an area where 50% of children are still growing up in poverty, that’s vital.

3. Chipperfield hacked

Let’s hack the Turner Contemporary architecture. The building, by David Chipperfield, is a few years old and we know its limitations now. The outside plaza is underused, the legibility of the front of the building is awful, the front doors are unfriendly and stick, the foyer is a dead space. The green space at the side is unloved and never used. The space between Turner Contemporary and the sea is a carpark, recently vandalised with clumsy road markings. The outside of Turner Contemporary lacks the life the inside has. Jane Jacobs would hate it. Margate is brilliant at using space – look at the slightly chaotic life of the Harbour Arm, the buzz around the Sundeck at Nayland Rock, or the anarchic spirit of Fort Road Yard. And when Turner Contemporary has used those spaces – for example, with Dwelling for Summer of Colour (pictured), it’s been transformational. By the time the Turner Prize arrives, let’s have a plan in place for the front, the outside, and the areas around Turner Contemporary; let’s make Turner Contemporary a place, not a building.

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4. Bored

Turner Contemporary should be governed by the people it represents and works with. The Board of Trustees  does great work in keeping the gallery going, but the mix of people from the banking sector, big organisations and art world establishment could do with hearing more local voices. The typical local panel or representative group is still an exercise in power: and doesn’t encourage real listening and debate. There should be three local board members, chosen for their potential: they should be given support and training to join the board and a mentor to help them become confident contributors.

If we do this right – all the other stuff will happen, because Turner Contemporary will be properly rooted in Margate.

 

The new, nomadic Agora

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The Agora was the central public space in ancient Greek city-states. The word means either gathering place or assembly. The agora brought together the artistic, spiritual, civic and political life of the city in one space; it was a space for creating social capital.

The Agora is an idea I’ve explored previously, in empty shops – the long-running WorkShop series  (2010-15) came out of a Shoreham-by-Sea project called Agora.

The new, nomadic Agora is a mobile intervention, which will appear in everyday places.

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Agora will travel the UK. As part of the Troublemakers’ Festival, the Swansea Agora will appear in five different locations on five days for five one-hour sessions. The Margate Agora will appear a few times in different places during the Margate Festival. Stoke Agora will happen as part of Festival Stoke.  Short, sharp versions are being planned for London, Eastbourne, and Worthing.

Agora is a social artwork, and in each iteration, I will sit down with about ten people for an hour to have a conversation about local life. A range of prompts and simple activities will be provided. It’ll be a conversation in Plain English, using everyday examples, about citizenship, social capital and democracy.

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All the local conversations will become part of a wider artwork about the UK’s identity and ideas of citizenship at this time of change. The things people say and do in each place will travel on to the next.

At the end, I’ll produce a state-of-the-nation piece, in writing but also as an exhibition at my studio. Whichever way the general election goes, we’ve fallen apart as a country and it’s time to work out what’s next: our politicians have failed us in that, and it’s time for citizens to talk.

 

Natural capital gets lots of air time because banks – in their ongoing quest to own the world – like to invest. Social capital? Not so much.  Dan Thompson bangs the drum on behalf of all of us. He is expert at unlocking potential in people and places that are ignored. Lucy Siegle

Tips for Running Difficult Meetings

Demo at NestaI have run lots of meetings. You can make them useful not angry. Easily. I learnt this stuff by being ambushed and working it out.

I was at a meeting tonight where it all went really wrong, really quickly.

Ideally – don’t have meetings, but do something together and talk as you do it. But when you do need a meeting, here are six steps for running one with a likely-to-be-angry group:

1. Welcome everyone with tea and coffee. Talk to them as they come in: they will be less angry if you’ve looked them in the eye, told them your name, said hello.

2. Don’t have a top table – if you do, it’s them and us. Use groups or lumps of chairs or a cabaret-style layout. Change the dynamic of the room with the furniture.

3. Make feedback mechanisms easy from the start: have tables with activities, or boards with Post-its. Let people unload some of their anger before the meeting starts – and start by saying ‘we’re listening to you’.

4. Give gifts. A badge, pencil, notebook or something small. It makes it an exchange. ‘Thank you for coming. In return for your valuable opinions, here’s something back.’

5. Give something extra, so that the people who’ve come are the special ones. George at Maybridge Boys Club used to drum into us children ‘you’re all VIPs’. Treat people like VIPs. Start with ‘here’s a tour of venue’ or ‘here’s a behind-scenes film that nobody else has seen’.

6. There will be questions and you will have to answer. Make the Q&A in groups, around tables or around interactive activity. Not you against the whole crowd.

 

Theatre conference in Galway

There is no individual act in performing arts that does not require collective effort to be realised.  Together each individual element, be it the artist, producer, venue manager or facilitator, forms a collective experience for our sector, and our wider society.

Too often the “Them and Us” distinctions we draw can become entrenched and hostile.  This conference, will look at these perceived boundaries through a variety of lenses – exploring the separation of artist from state, distinctions between makers and audiences, performance spaces and communities, the “established” and “emerging”. Do common issues and concerns arise?  Are there shared approaches that could be more fruitful? What is our single and collective responsibility?

There are plenty of opportunities to talk, and in my time I’ve covered leadership styles for multinationals, digital strategies for social action, grassroots regeneration of town centres and everything inbetween. In June, I’m travelling to Galway for the All-Ireland Performing Arts Conference (APAC) to talk about the performing arts need individuals and a collective effort.

It’s a subject that I find very interesting, particularly as theatre (where my career started) offers such a different approach to the visual arts, which hold up the myth of the individual as the artistic genius. I was standing on the waterfront in Newcastle, NSW a few years ago talking to a bunch of interesting people after a conference (Marcus Westbury, the Renew Newcastle gang, the great people from Gap Filler in New Zealand) – and we realised that all of us, and the people we admired who were taking creative collaborative approaches to urban renewal, had a thread of theatre in our backgrounds.

And it’s an approach I’ve applied to 15 years of working with mostly visual artists. I am beginning to realise that the lines between the different elements of my practice, between performance and design and visual arts and regeneration and urbanism and social action, are very thin.

Perhaps, in a dozen universes that are just a subtle knife cut apart, I have different job titles; artist, writer, activist, producer, urbanist. For my talk at APAC, I’ll try to tie them all together.

 

 

Gideon vs David, Thatcher vs Major refought

Remember the days of the Tony vs Gordon scraps? Tony Blair was all out for power, but Gordon had a genuine social purpose, to eradicate child poverty. It led to a conflict between the two which was hardly hidden. The people who came out of the fight the worst were, of course, us.

For the first five years of David Cameron’s premiership, we were told that the conflict in government was between the Conservatives and the moderating Liberal Democrat coalition partners. That the conflict was along party lines. It never seemed to make sense; why would a minor party in a partnership have so much influence, and why would the Conservatives accept that?

But a short time into an unexpected majority Conservative government, I think we need to look again at what we’ve had and what we’ve got. What if the conflict is actually David vs Gideon? David Cameron is often seen as a successor to Margaret Thatcher. But what if he’s not? If he is actually continuing the work of John Major, who recorded the highest popular vote ever recorded in a general election and who was behind a fundamental shift in government, from the Westminster centre to the citizen.

It’s easy to laugh at Major’s legacy as just the Cones Hotline, but actually his legacy is found in the Freedom of Information Act, which started with the Citizen’s Charter. This gave us, for the first time, access to information about how local authorities were performing, data about schools, NHS targets and set times for treatment, and a shift towards a more open, accountable democracy. It allowed us to compare and mark one authority or service against another. A Trip Advisor for democratic institutions.

Major also rebuilt a collapsed British economy, bringing down both borrowing and unemployment. And maybe Cameron was continuing that spirit, with the Big Society (still, at heart, a good idea) and Localism as the children of the Citizen’s Charter.

So where, if that’s the case, does the Nasty Party come from? Gideon ‘George’ Osborne, maybe, continuing the work of Thatcher. His economic policies have hit the poor hardest, derailed the Big Society project, and are very much in favour of big business, privatisation and a heavy handed state capitalism. Today, he announced automatic planning approval for development on brownfield sites, undoing five years work on Cameron’s Localism project in one move. Tens of thousands of hours spent by local people, developing plans, by local authorities, redrawing the planning system to give local people a louder voice. All undone.

If we reconsider what we’re seeing as a conflict between Cameron and Osborne, Major vs Thatcher, things look rather different. The coalition shifts now, with the Lib Dems and Cameron’s allies all moderating the harder policies of Osborne and co.

And the worrying thing is, Osborne clearly has the winning hand – he’s destroyed first the Big Society and now the whole philosophy of Localism. If you want a vision of the future, imagine a property developer’s workboot stamping on a human face – forever.

Arlington House Auction

Margate’s beautiful Main Sands is bookended by two Brutal buildings, bold seaside architecture that is the spirit of a town that’s on the edge, both physically and metaphorically, told in concrete. Turner Contemporary and Arlington House are a pair, a duet, Margate’s story made solid.

Because Margate’s a living, breathing place. It’s not pickled heritage painted in Farrow & Ball, not a Cath Kidston nod to a Ladybird book past, not a 21st century take on a kitsch saucy seaside postcard, but is a colourful, chaotic and always contemporary place. It’s always faced firmly forward and Arlington House is as much part of that story as the Georgian squares, Dreamland’s Art Deco cinema, David Chipperfield’s Turner blocks or the crazy Clocktower.

And right now, Arlington House is the bit that’s been left behind. From the tower’s east-facing flats, you can see Turner Contemporary and watch Dreamland coming back to life. And Arlington has to be next. The site has been in limbo, since Tesco pulled out, and worryingly there’s still planning permission for demolition of the shops, car park and the tower’s elegant 60s-styled foyer block.

So we need to fight. When it was first proposed Turner Contemporary was a crazy idea, and when residents stood up for Dreamland they were told it was never going to happen. Except – Turner’s there, and Dreamland is. By getting together, Margate’s residents and visitors have shown, big things can be made to happen. Arlington’s next. Tell everyone, Arlington’s next.

So right now, we need to get some cash into the Friends of Arlington House accounts, to pay off some of the legal costs from a long fight to save the building and to give them a fighting fund to look ahead. Like I said, it’s Margate’s residents and visitors that will make things happen; and they’ve donated some frankly (and yes, the word’s overused, but trust me – it fits) awesome lots to a fundraising auction.

So – would you like some art or Wayne Hemingway’s autograph, some coasters or some cushions? Advice on making your home, garden or just your body a bit better? Would you like food, or drink, in one of Margate’s ace eateries? A stay in a boutique b&b, an Old Town apartment or in a flat in Arlington House itself? Would you like records from a frankly rather hip label, or would you like to learn to DJ with them? The Arlington House Auction is odd and inspiring, eclectic and entertaining, and packed full of stuff which I re kon you’ll love and which will help Friends of Arlington Margate keep fighting for this national treasure. Fifty-odd fab lots – bid here in the Arlington House Auction.

 The auction closes tomorrow at 5pm.

We Are The Resistance

It feels like a long time ago, that election. It was (here on the Isle of Thanet) a frantic, hard and furious time. Everyone was getting stuck in, on one side or the other. Insults were hurled and punches were thrown.
And coming out of it, I started thinking about what we do next. Yes, our democracy is well and truly buggered, but it’s the democracy we chose. We really can’t argue.

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So I called for a British Resistance. We’re in an occupied country, with a government most of us didn’t vote for, doing things most of us don’t agree with. The French Resistance knew what to do, a network of groups building systems that lived in but under a society occupied by the German Army. The Home Guard Auxiliary Units were ready to do the same.

Now it’s our turn. So we need to go underground in plain sight, get ready and support each other while we chalk V for Victory on walls. With the threats to free speech this government are proposing, chalk on walls might be all we have that’s safe, free and untapped. The morse for V is dot dot dot dash and the hashtag’s #dotdotdotdash. It’s the opening of beethoven’s Fifth, too, of course – ‘duh-duh-duh-duuur’. So use it as a reminder, use it as a shibboleth, use it as your red line (and what happened to all of them, now we have a Conservative majority government?).

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Find five, then ten, then twenty people you like and trust. Form a resistance cell. Share a pot of tea, break bread. Find small acts. Don’t blow up bridges, cut down telegraph wires, dynamite roads. Use that energy to build new things, new ways to help each other, new structures to support others. Communicate with other cells. Don’t be angry. We’re all in this together. We really are.

#dotdotdotdash or V chalked on walls is a visible sign that we’re here and fighting back. Underneath that public statement, though, we have big things to do. We need to house each other, feed each other, clothe each other, help each other wherever and however we can. Every little bit helps, to borrow a phrase from the occupiers.

I grew up on a council estate in Worthing. I wasn’t poor; we didn’t have a particularly tragic upbringing, even though my mum left and my dad brought us up. Single parent family. We had a council house, so my dad could save and eventually buy it. We went to a childminder, before and after school, so he could work as a schoolteacher, a step up from his earlier job as a record store manager. We had a holiday every year, with PGL, so got to experience amazing things in beautiful places. We didn’t have a car, but lived in a town that was flat and easy to move around, so by the age of 12 I was cycling freely. We had a playing field behind the house, and fields and streams nearby at the foot of the South Downs (now housing, and offices – Southern Water’s HQ is on the stream where I caught Sticklebacks).

And we had a sense of place. I lived on the Maybridge Estate and in many ways, still do. In a society still as class-based as ours, growing up on a council estate means you know your place. It was a mark; people from the posher parts of town very much looked down on it. But we lived together, and I still have friends who grew up on the estate. I’m oddly proud of the ones that went to John Selden School with me and did well. No crab bucket, Maybridge, but something else entirely.

Mr Woods lived over the road from us. He’s a millionaire now, I believe, an early Lottery winner. But I remember one act of his that I think the British Resistance can copy. He was a binman. He’d collect all the tokens from cereal boxes on his rounds, and send off for the free toys. Enough for all of us in the street. So let’s start there.

Let’s collect all the tokens from cereal boxes, send off for the free stuff, and give it to people who can use it.

Let’s buy Two-For-One whenever we can, and bag the spares for redistribution.

Let’s find little ways to redistribute the ample wealth our society has, and make that the first act of our resistance.

Let’s use the skills and the spaces we have for the common good. If you can sew; help people patch their clothes well. If you can grow; share your crops. If you can teach; share your knowledge. If you can act or sing or dance; help people to keep smiling.

That belief in kindness, sharing and helping others is the only reason that the Welfare State was built, and it came out of a long period of austerity. Real austerity, born of a need to fight fascism, an austerity that continued because we helped the countries devastated by war to rebuild. Austerity as a proper sacrifice, not just for our own nation but to help the world become a safer, better, kinder place.

That’s of course very different to the austerity being forced on us now at the rough end of 35 years of Thatcherite hatred of helping others (the whole of my conscious life lived under one political ideology!).

So resist, redistribute, remember, and write V on walls.

An alternative crowdfunding

So… would a bunch of you pledge some money, crowdfunding style, without knowing what it’s going towards – but knowing that three people with good taste will pick an artist and commission a piece of work of work with your money, and you’ll get something cool in six months time?

People I want to collaborate with

I’m looking ahead, from halfway through a year long residency in Stoke, and thinking ‘What’s next?’. I’ve always enjoyed collaboration and have been lucky enough to work with some cracking artists, makers and designers; I’d be far richer if I didn’t use the small budgets I get for projects to work with other people. So here are a few of the people who’ve been on my mind, that I’d like to collaborate with over the next couple of years8:

Lloyd DavisLloyd Davis is currently working with me on a project in Sittingbourne, Workshop 34. He’s a master of many things, carries a uke and makes me think and smile.

The Ossett Observer gang are dangerous, full-blown anarchists. They tend to have ukes too. And poetry. And pigeons.

Geek is a rather neat festival in Margate. Built around vintage gaming, it’s really about technology in East Kent. It was set up by Kate Kneale from HKD, and she also has some good ideas about pottery which ties in with my work in Stoke.

She Makes War is the musical project from Laura Kidd, who’s also a film-maker – she made the Pop Up People project much better than it would have been without her. I can’t play anything so don’t know what our collaboration would be… but hey.

I absolutely love The Shell Grotto. It’s got real English magic and mystery and it inspires me every time I visit. Run by great people, too.

Equally bonkers is the Powell-Cotton Museum. I was lucky enough to work with their education chap, Keith, earlier this year. I’ve spent a lot of time around museums, but he’s something special. Another project there would be great.

Company of Makers is the latest thing from Steve Bomford, who joined me on the Empty Shops Network tour a few years back. Top chap, top project.

Tom Swift, madman, That’s all.

P1120627Andy Lewis didn’t used to be nearly as cool as he is now, when I DJ’d with him at Blow Up. Ogh alright – he was always rather cool. But now he’s Paul Weller’s bass player too. Another musical collaboration.

I’m already collaborating, kind of, with Sarah Nadin, on #chumbrella. Lovely artist, cracking good ideas.

And further afield – Gap Filler in New Zealand, and Marcus Westbury and Simone Sheridan in Australia. But they take a bit more planning…

* (and no, it’s not an exhaustive list – it’s one thrown together quickly – so don’t worry if you’re not here. It’ll grow over the next few weeks.)

Swifty’s Sunday Social, 20 years ago

P1160328It’s odd, looking back and realising that the summer of 2014 was 20 years ago. We were just having fun in a battered seaside town and I don’t think any of us considered that what we were doing would have such an impact. We weren’t a gang, and never called ourselves Imaginists back then. What we were doing wasn’t a conscious attempt to shape the future, even if we did all secretly believe we could change the world. But Margate was burning bright in 2014. There had been months of great theatre, incredible art happenings, a buzz in the national media (newspapers, back then – newspapers!)

It really came together on a Sunday afternoon at the sleepy end of that summer; Swift hadn’t had even one platinum album then, there was little to suggest he’d win the Turner Prize twice, and the idea that there’d be a room dedicated to him in Margate’s Imaginist Centre was faintly ridiculous. He was Tom Swift, not Swift; he hadn’t become, like Madonna, somebody known by a single name. He was just oddball painter Tom Swift, a lanky, awkward character with an eye on the main chance, fingers in some odd pies, a hatful of ideas, a neat line in drippy paintings. And, in Caspar, a mentor.

Yes, that Caspar – he was charismatic even then, but we didn’t realise how dangerous his religious quackery would become. I’m not sure then he even believed in the Sacred Duck; it was just an in joke. I think after Apple introduced the smart drugs, they started to alter the world around him, and he believed the coincidences and chances meant something. If we had known how far he’d take it, well; we’d have pushed him off the harbour arm, the Thames Barrier wouldn’t have been damaged so badly by that ridiculous Rubber Duck, and London wouldn’t have flooded.

P1160550Anyway – together Swift and Caspar and me cooked up the plan for Swifty’s Sunday Social at the Black Cat Club. Not the one you can visit now, of course – that’s a shameless cash-in, a Disneyfied version of where we hung out. It’s not even in the same place. There never was a Black Cat at the Imaginist Centre on the seafront. Back then it was an art gallery called Turner Contemporary, and that summer it was exhibiting work by Jeremy Deller. Forgotten now, but back then he was the big star, not us. Today’s Black Cat at the Imaginist Centre is just an imitation, as authentic as The Cavern in Liverpool, but it’s made Keith Roberts rich and famous. When I watch him on the panel of England’s Got Talent, I can’t help but remember the Gabicci-wearing, quiffed, suited and booted wideboy he was back then. He hasn’t really changed much, has he?

Our Black Cat, back then, was across the road; it’s the toilets of Starbucks now – I know, tiny. It was a proper underground club, sweat dripping from the ceiling and the walls sticky. It was where Swifty’s Sunday Social started, and my own Face Up! too. That was just supposed to be a one-off night, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Mods vs Rockers battles in Margate in 1964. I never saw Face Up! becoming the brand it has become, and every one of our coffee shops around the world has a little bit of the Black Cat spirit, every item of clothing in our shops is inspired by what people were wearing in Margate back then, every disc and download in our record shops could have graced the turntables that year. But I digress; the first Swifty’s Sunday Social, all those Sundays ago, is what I’m writing about.

It was a good afternoon. There was a DJ, a local vicar called Emmet Keane (remember, there was still a Church of England back then!), playing reggae and dub; and Helen Seymour performed her poetry. She was an interesting character; slight and hauntingly beautiful, magic eyes, slightly awkward as we all were, slipping rhymes and interesting images into rambling stories. I saw the spark in her, but still can’t believe she’s the same person who wrote that poem for the old Queen’s funeral, let alone that her brief affair with a prince that started at the funeral could topple the monarchy.

P1160510And there was a Simon Williams film projected on the wall, too. I know, I know, it seems unlikely – a Turner Prize winner, the Poet Laureate, a ten-times Oscar winner, a TV superstar, the Prime Minister and me all in the one place, on one Sunday afternoon, but it’s true. It really happened. Simon’s film was a precursor to ‘365’, that won him that first Oscar. It was a black and white film (timelapse, of course, could it be anything else, from him?) shot from Arlington House, which wasn’t the swanky, gated place it’s become. Back then it was just a towerblock, Margate just a seaside town.

The crowd that Sunday afternoon was full of good, interesting people, too. Joe Brown was there; he was a shopkeeper, ran a junk shop with Kelly. He hadn’t become a politician then, had no ambitions to become Prime Minister. Really! Back then, people were career politicians, not people like Joe who just rose from nowhere. There were photographers, and writers, and painters, and dancers, and shopkeepers out that afternoon. The Breuer and Dawson boys, before they hosted their TV makeover series, before Breuer and Dawson was just a chain store. IndustroChic wasn’t a thing back then. A good crowd, for a rainy Sunday afternoon, but not as many people as have said they were there; we’d never have fitted everyone that said they were at the first one into that tiny room. I remember Simon saying we needed ten more people to make it feel busy; Caspar wanted fifty more. There was room for ten, room for fifty, and there weren’t queues around the block back then for anything Swift did.

I guess it’s that weekend that changed it all, really; that made it clear we had a scene. I know the Black Cat is compared to Warhol’s Factory, and while that’s a lazy comparison there’s something in it. The atmosphere maybe, that bottled sense of excitement, that belief that we could take on the world and win, that buttoned-down madness – but the impact of the Imaginists has been so much bigger, deeper, wider. It all started one Sunday, and nothing’s been quite the same since.

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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.

Harvest celebration

P1140414Northdown Primary School in Margate is a good school in tough circumstances. It has 342 students (the national average is around 250) and 62.5% of them are eligible for free school meals – the average is below 30%. More than a quarter of students don’t speak English as their first language. The number of disabled students, and those with special educational needs, are both above the national averages, too.

And with all of that – it’s received a ‘Good’ in the latest Oftsed inspection, driven up from ‘Satisfactory’ by a new headteacher and academy status. I was worried about schools, moving to Margate; but I don’t think my children could be at a better school. It’s better than their previous schools in Worthing, and better than the schools my oldest went to there as well.

The day-to-day teaching is superb, the support we’ve received as parents new to the area exceptional and quite emotional, and the off-site trips (including a choir concert in St Paul’s Cathedral, a visit to a West End show and a trip to Hampton Court Palace) brilliant. While we appreciate those – the impact on some of the poorer children in the area must be incredible. At the St Paul’s concert, I met parents who’d never been to London before.

And now, it’s time for Harvest Festival,- a tradition that I remember from school as always being slightly meaningless. We took in donations of food, that were sent away, somewhere, for someone else. Well – Northdown Primary have closed that gap, in a tough area where over 32% of children are living in poverty. As usual, everyone will bring in donations of food and drink. These will be made up into eight hampers. And every child will receive a ticket, free of charge, for a raffle; with eight children getting to take home one of the hampers.

Such a neat idea; tough, practical, and teaching children about philanthropy at the same time. So – if anyone would like to make a donation, get in touch.

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 Conservatives are suddenly anti-charity

I was asked to write a short comment for The Guardian, about Osborne’s attack on charities. But they’re not going to use it – so, here it is:

Legislation to stop charity lobbying, recent comments from Osborne, and the Minister for Civil Society telling charities to stick to their knitting all suggest the Conservatives don’t like charities.

It’s especially odd when you remember that Osborne, like many of the current government, was educated by a charity. Private schools, as charities, benefit from tax breaks which mean they’re effectively subsidised by the state.

That’s a reminder of how embedded in British society charities really are. They’re everywhere. They’re there when we need them, supporting schools and hospitals, but they’re also there for the good things – the arts, our historic buildings and our countryside are all better because of the work of charity. And charities provide less tangible benefits too, bringing people together, reducing isolation, bettering people’s health  and increasing community cohesion. There’s even a charity dedicated to supporting the Conservative Party’s finances. Charity and giving are long traditions, and they’re what put the ‘Great’ in Britain.

In 2011, after I started #riotcleanup, Cameron singled me out in his Party Conference speech and later described my work around volunteering as showing ‘the Best of British’. And his great project, The Big Society, was all about being charitable, giving time and money to do good things. It’s deeply worrying that a Conservative government which did so much to support charity, and oversaw the first rise in volunteering since 2005, has now turned against the people it encouraged. It’ll be interesting to see how 20 million volunteers use their votes!

‘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…

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.

 

The Social Media News Cycle; Eastbourne Pier Fire

Watching the unfolding story from Eastbourne this afternoon, where the pier is now well ablaze, made me think about the way news breaks and spreads on Twitter.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how Twitter has changed, and how, in some ways, it’s less useful now than it was. And how, counter-intuitively, it’s the mass take up of the platform that’s made it so.

So – Eastbourne. As the news broke, half a dozen people were Tweeting live from the scene. This was great; real time, unfiltered, verifiable by cross-checking the various accounts.

Within twenty minutes though, all the usefulness was lost in the noise. With a small number of people, you could unwrap the events and see them happen: search now, and it’s impossible to see a timeline, as the early images are lost amongst reTweets and the images have been copied, cut and pasted so they’re not even linked to the originating accounts.

It’s moved, very rapidly, from easy-to-follow first-person reportage with a clear timeline – to just noise; orphaned photos, wild assumptions, endless feedback as content loops and repeats.

And here’s the issue that Twitter faces; the more users, the more noise. And the more users, the more inexperienced users, of course, and they make more noise.

At the same time, Twitter have locked down their API in the last year, making it harder to build tools to manage their content – so it’s harder to create effective filters.

So we need two things. First we need Twitter to open up again, and let us build ways to make their content more useful. Otherwise, we have to go back to trusting corporate channels – and that rather defeats the whole point of a platform that’s opened up citizen journalism.

And second; those of us who’ve been on Twitter a while really need to help people understand the basics; only Tweet what you know to be true, check your facts, and give attribution where it’s due. Otherwise, we might see Twitter become all noise. And if that happens, we all lose.

The Future of the High Street (2009 version)

I was going through some archived stuff, and found this, written in 2009. Back then, the general consensus was that small shops had failed, and over the next couple of years Mary Portas and Bill Grimsey backed up that idea, producing reports that said the High Street was dead, and big supermarkets were the way forward. Now, Tesco is failing and has cancelled big store builds, the supermarkets are buying up pubs to open as smaller stores, and the latest report says that the High Street is backTea party at Workshop 24

 

It’s a recession, so we need to restore and revive the high street. But after that, it’s time to reinvent and reimagine our town centres as we try to find again the balance between business and community.

Let’s make town centres places for swapping and sharing, as well as spending.

Let’s fill them with debate and discussion. Let’s make town centres about ideas and inspiration, as well as just investment. Let’s make town centre’s friendly and flexible. Let’s make them public, not private. Let’s make town centres about local business and local distinctiveness, as well as big business and branding.

Let’s create spaces that are nests, so small businesses can learn to fly. Let’s make spaces that are social, so people can come together and find common ground. Let’s find ways for people of every age, every shape, every size and every budget to fit in our town centres.

Let’s explore spaces that are dead, and fill them with life.

Let’s do it ourselves.

Let’s get started right now.

 

 

Goodbye, Nick Hurd

I’ve been working in the arts, involved in the voluntary sector and tinkering with ideas of community organising for most of my life. I was brought up by parents who were active and involved in the community, and have been getting stuck in myself since the age of 13, when I got backstage at Worthing’s Connaught Theatre as part of their community arts programme.

While my stuff has always been about work at street level, about the simplest route to action, about doing things with the smallest resource, it’s been good in the last few years to know that what I was doing was appreciated at the other end of the scale.

14185543804_6bc4033f61_oNick Hurd MP was the Minister for Civil Society at the time of the August 2011 riots, and we first spoke on the day of #riotcleanup when he pledged his support and ensured the thousands of volunteers I’d mobilised had a free run at doing something good.

He became a great advocate for the work I was involved in. I heard him tell the story of #riotcleanup at events a few times; my broken Toshiba laptop, coffee delivered to the door, and my liking for takeaway food becoming slightly more exaggerated each time.

We’ve kept in touch since, and he helped me try and test ideas around using social media for social good with #wewillgather. He helped us launch the project and reach a much wider audience, ensuring that the ideas we put forward are still being discussed today.

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And Nick gave me the chance to push the government to bring their empty buildings into community use, setting up a meeting with Chloe Smith MP and the government’s empty property team.

Nick was a genuine enthusiast for the ideas behind the Big Society – finding new ways of volunteering, increasing people’s involvement in the places they live, shrinking bureaucracy, trying and testing and taking risks, developing a more people-based approach to taking action. Wherever you are, politically, those are good things.

As part of David Cameron’s recent reshuffle, Nick has resigned as the Minister for Civil Society. He said, ‘Thanks to so many friends and critics in our brilliant voluntary sector. You have often driven me nuts, but my respect and love are undimmed.’

Hard as it is to say this as an anarchist, I’m genuinely sorry to see a Conservative minister go. So goodbye, Nick Hurd, but I hope we can still drive you nuts occasionally.

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.

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.