Your England performance in Roundabout

Press Release

From King Arthur’s Round Table in Eden to Winston Churchill at Dover Castle, and from Brixton Market to the rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral, our national story can be found in the buildings all around us.

Travelling from one end of the country to the other, before and after the 2016 referendum, artist and writer Dan Thompson has become interested in how the stories told about England’s historic buildings reflect our sense of identity. In a new project, taking place over the next year, he plans to write 100 poems about 100 places, which together will form a history of England.

In this special.performance in pop up theatre Roundabout, Thompson will read some of the first poems written. In this free show he tells the story of the first black trader in Brixton Market, Basil Spence rebuilding Coventry Cathedral after the Blitz, the architect who created an Egyptian temple in Leeds, and the man who discovered Margate’s Shell Grotto.

“The show will appeal to people interested in local history, printing presses, historic buildings, lost rivers, poetry, or the split in society brought about by Brexit,” he says.

Thompson has worked as an artist across the UK, often working with local people to explore the place they live. He made a set of signal flags for Estuary Festival, which subsequently toured as a backdrop with The Libertines, and in 2017 programmed the Estuary Festival in Swansea. He has won Coast’s Unsung Hero Award, been included on The Independent’s Happy List, and listed by Time Out as one of the hundred most influential people in the UK’s creative industries.

He has previously performed a one man show in Roundabout in Stoke and Margate. This one-off performance, titled Your England, takes place at 2.30pm on Friday 21st September. It lasts around 45 minutes and is free. Your England is supported by Marine Studios and is part of the Margate Festival. For more information visit http://www.danthompson.co.uk.

Download Your England – Press Release (pdf)

Your England final web.jpg

Advertisements

The new, nomadic Agora

Logo 2 copy.jpg

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.

AIRTime Belfast

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.

Tea party at Workshop 24

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

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.

Margate, November 2034

#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.

14370051807_b9b5803f17_o

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.

P1150181

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.

 

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.

14143212359_ca6da052d6_o

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.

Let’s meet

AIRTime BelfastThe ‘social’ in ‘social artist’ is really important. What I do is get people together to make interesting things happen. What I don’t do is have meetings.

I had my moment of realisation a few years ago, sitting in another meeting with Worthing Borough Council to discuss the arts-led regeneration of the town. I can’t remember the exact order of the agenda, but I do remember looking around and thinking ‘this is how these people earn a living – by being in meetings. Every other person here is paid, except me, just to be in this room. And they think that having a meeting is the same as doing something.’

It’s not, of course. Meetings are, all too often, a substitute for useful activity, a way of covering the lack of any action with a veneer of ‘we’re doing something – look, there’s an agenda and there will be minutes’.

ProgrammeI’ve been reminded of this a couple of times recently. I went to an open meeting a couple of weeks ago. Nobody I spoke to before the event started was quite clear what the meeting was about. The organisation who’d called the meeting were hard to fathom; their structure wasn’t clear so it was hard to know how outsiders could get involved. And the meeting spoke mainly to insiders anyway, with in-jokes and jargon that made it hard to catch up.

And a colleague reported on a meeting she’d travelled the country for, from the north to the south coast. She arrived to find the people she was meeting didn’t really want to talk, and to make that point had scheduled just one hour after all that travel.

I’ve spent hours, days, probably months in meetings. I’ve run open, public events and chaired closed committees. I’ve been a keynote speaker at conferences and brought people together in coffee shops. I’ve held events in the Houses of Parliament and in backstreet art studios. I’ve spoken to global corporations about leadership and to local groups about anarchy. So – how can we reclaim the meeting as something useful? Here’s how I think we can make meetings matter:

P10603831. Don’t have a meeting unless you need to. That sounds obvious, but too many meetings are held because we need to be seen to be having a meeting, bringing ‘partners’ and ‘stakeholders’ together. Call a meeting only when it’s useful, not out of habit. Is there an alternative – a meetup in a coffee shop, doing an activity together?

2. In advance, be clear about who should be at the meeting and why. Don’t invite everybody – invite the people who can contribute and who will take action. Everyone else can be briefed afterwards. If you’re holding an open meeting, make it really clear – ‘You should come to this meeting if you’re interested in a, b, or c.’ Tell people what they should read in advance, what they need to understand and how they will contribute to the meeting.

3. If it’s a big, public meeting or an open workshop, be really clear at the start about who’s brought the meeting together. Say why you’ve asked people to come. Lay out a clear purpose – ‘at the end of the meetings we’ll have decided n and will agree to x.

4. Welcome people as they arrive. And if people arrive late, welcome them too. Don’t worry about how many people turn up; the people in the room are the right people. Make sure you have their contact details so you can follow up afterwards.

P10507195. Have a timetable. ‘We’ll spend 10 minutes on this, 20 on this…’ And stick to it. If something looks like it’s going to need more time, that’s a separate meeting for the people interested in that part of the discussion.

5. If your meeting is open and has a wide audience, avoid in jokes and references to things outside the meeting which other people might not know about. If a reference is useful, make it clear. Avoid jargon, acronyms and the like; even if you think everyone understands, they may be interpreted differently by different people. My NPO is a Not-For-Profit, yours is a National Portfolio Organisation, and theirs is the National Preservation Office.

Screen6. Make your meeting open via social media. Encourage people to Tweet or talk to people outside the room. It isn’t rude that people are Tweeting; it’s open and democratic. But more importantly, allows other voices to be heard and means more people can contribute, or learn from what you discuss. Watch the hashtag during the meeting and bring comments into the room where useful.

7. To make 6. easier, give everyone the wifi password and tell them what the hashtag is. Both of these should be written at the front of the room and visible throughout.

8. If there are questions and answers between speakers or presentations, make sure they are questions – not lengthy statements or position pieces. Define what a question is, if you have to!

9. Let people escape. Make sure there’s a door leading out of the room which people can use without embarrassment – that is, it should be at the back of the room not behind the speaker. There are legitimate reasons for leaving – to take a call or use the toilet. But it’s also good to be able to escape if you realise, it’s not a meeting you need to be in.

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.

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.

Council crush community

ImageOne of the things that most inspired me about Margate was the community-built skatepark on the abandoned Little Oasis Crazy Golf course.

The skatepark was built on a small corner, a former remote control car track. Built by people who knew what they were doing, it had proper poured concrete ramps and othe features.

It cleared a plot used for flytipping and covered in rubbish.

And brought people together – English and Eastern European, young and old worked together, played together, invested time and effort together. Collectively they made the area feel safer, feel cleaner and feel happier.

This morning at 6am, protected by Kent Police, Thanet Council contractors moved onto the site, demolished everything, and broke up the tarmac base. One corner of Cliftonville feels less safe, less clean and less happy.

The Social Artist Podcast

Lloyd DavisThe trouble with being a social artist in a small town is that it can be rather solitary. And it’s an area of work that’s fed by discussion, debate, a bit of discourse. So – good fellow, fine chum and all-round top chap Lloyd Davis (left, photographed on our Workshop 24 project) have decided to address that, by having a conversation regularly, and recording it as a podcast.

Here’s the first one. A little rough, sans exciting jingles, and Lloyd sounds a bit quiet in places; but where else will you get happiness, Mary Portas, Jeremy Deller, Humphrey Lyttleton at Conway Hall, Bryony Kimmings, William Gibson on bohemias, the tidal Thames, The Story conference, a mysterious trunk belonging (maybe) to Powell-Cotton and the Arcadia Sweetshop all in one podcast? Nowhere, that’s where.

Download the Social Artist podcast – it’s about 30 minutes long – here.

A workshop that showed social media works

P1070426I’m often asked to talk about social media, and have discussed the subject at conferences, workshops and discussions for the last few years. I’ve never claimed to be an expert (I don’t think there are any, and certainly don’t think there are rules to follow). But social media is very much part of the work that I do, and is wrapped into everything Revolutionary Arts has ever done since we created artistsandmakers.com, which let users set up a profile and create their own content. So I have some practical, grounded experience to share.

But as a social artist, I don’t think just talking about social media is enough. It only really works when you couple the words with some action. Like the Pink fairies say, ‘Don’t talk about it man, all you gotta do is do it’. I’m a social artist because I want to make things happen.

So when long-term collaborator Steve Bomford asked me to come back to Portsmouth for Global Entrepreneurship Week I said yes – as long as we could do more than talk. I wanted to bring together people who wanted to learn more about social media, find out what they had in common, and create a live project by the end of the workshop. So about twenty people, with diverse experiences and skills, came together at Portsmouth’s impressive Guildhall in November.

I thought we might get a Facebook page, or a Flickr group, or some kind of funky mashup. But Portsmouth’s finest creative minds went one further, and used social media to create a one-day busking festival, Southsea Sunday.

The event, just a few weeks after the workshop, focused attention on local shops and cafes in the run up to Christmas, and raised funds for Southsea’s Food Bank.

Even better, the gang that met at the workshop are still working together, and are planning what’s next:

So one afternoon, a good room with coffee and biscuits and reliable wifi, and you can not only learn what social media is and how it works, but test that in action and have some fun doing it. I’d love to repeat the workshop  elsewhere and see what a different twenty people come up with. Get in touch if you’d like that to happen.

Bedford Happy Club

P1100877The biggest chunk of the first quarter of 2014 will be taken up with a commission from Bedford Creative Arts. Their hometown was voted the unhappiest in Britain, and their director Dawn Giles approached me after seeing my work elsewhere and my talk to TEDx Bedford about placeshaking. Could I spend three months placeshaking, and making Bedford a happier place?

I started over Christmas, collecting information about happiness, data about where and when people are happiest, and looking at work by other artists who’ve explored the theme.

And I don’t think anyone else has quite got to where I want to be. There’s some great work, like Invisible Flock’s Bring The Happy and the 100 Happy Days project. But most of it is about remembering, capturing moments of past happiness, nostalgia and memory. I want to go further, and help people do things that make them happier now.

I don’t think that happiness is just contentment; it’s more than not being unhappy. It’s always temporary, not a permanent state. It generally comes from interaction and the social – it’s rarely solitary and self-contained. But it is also autonomous, something we do to ourselves: we can choose to be happy.

So I’m currently wrestling with plans for 25 workshops in Bedford. I genuinely want these workshops to bring people together to explore happiness, to be part of the process of discovery and to inform the end artwork; but (quite understandably) Bedford Creative Arts want more plan and structure, and to know what we’ll be making.

I know there’s going to be an event, a day of happiness, a game played across the town centre’s underused spaces. But what fills the spaces on that giant board game? That’s for the people I meet to decide.

The work starts this week, and while it’s not going to be an easy commission, it’s certainly going to be interesting.

2014: What The F*ck Is Going On?

2014 will be about: Discordianism, exploring British towns, 7″ singles, Bedford, Powell Cotton, the intersection of Northern Soul and songs about being happy, seaside urbanismThe Shell Grotto, Eris, Primitive Methodism, crazy golf, Mods vs Rockers, YIMBY, the KLF, Dreamland, cultural places as social objects, bicycles, East Street Arts, words/signs/typography, Things Found In Books, picking up litter, Fred Perry, postcards and podcasting.

In the future, everyone will be an expert for 15 minutes

In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes

The trouble with experts these days is that as soon as they’ve said something, it’s been made irrelevant by something changing. We are living in times when things change so quickly the experts can’t keep up. What are the experts in Jacquard Looms, typewriting, Morse Code, the ARPANET, BBC Microcomputers, Ceefax, Friends Reunited and MySpace doing now?

And things aren’t going to slow down; each new piece of technology shortens the time that it takes to make the next new piece of technology. Literally – 3D printers are being used to print bigger, better 3D printers. It’s getting faster, and you’re getting slower. This applies to the way that social media has changed the music industry, to the physical bricks and mortar of our town centres, to the way we teach our children. Everything is changing, here comes everybody, and everybody is an expert.

We can still be experts, but it’s not a badge for life. Learn something, learn it well, but be willing to be overtaken by technology and another expert quite quickly. Being good at something doesn’t make you a master, not any more. We’re going to have to learn to take turns at being experts.

So here’s Thompson’s Tenet: In the future, everyone will be an expert for 15 minutes.

TEDx Bedford, Everyday Radicals and Placeshaking

What joins up events on Worthing Pier, street play, the Primitive Methodists, pop up shops, guerilla gardening, The Caravan Gallery and yarn bombing?

They all get threaded together in this talk about the idea of Placeshaking – informal, loose, DIY urbanism that helps to define what makes places special.

It’s the first time I’ve spoken at a TEDx event, and I’m a bit sceptical about them – I prefer action to talking. But I was invited by Bedford’s Kayte Judge, who have a lot of time and respect for. Seems it turned out alright in the end.

Marcus Westbury and Australia’s ‘Renew’ movement

P1060383I’ve been lucky enough to meet Marcus Westbury a couple of times while he’s been in Europe – and to go out to Australia to work with him as well.

He’s the driving force behind Renew Newcastle (backed up by a great team, it has to be said) and has inspired Australia to restore, renew and reactivate high streets. He’s made the idea of using empty shops and other buildings for creative purposes mainstream out there.

There’s a real depth to Marcus’s work and, in the best Buddhist way, he matches right thought, right word and right action. He’s a clever chap, but in an honest and straightforward way because he’s interested in actually doing things. All the same things I’m interested in doing here, but Marcus is far more eloquent than I’ll ever be at explaining them.

That’s why the fact that Marcus is currently crowdfunding a book about his work is so important; if you can support him, it’ll be well worth it. You can pledge to support Marcus here. And you really should.

Hicksville

There are places I really want to go. Towns and cities that hold some interest, usually through connections to a favourite record, a much-loved book, a moment in history. My list includes Petra in Jordan, and Berlin, (I’ve never been to either) and a return visit to Detroit. It now includes Hicksville, California.

Hicksville is a cluster of caravans forming an adhoc village for artists in the Californian desert. There’s the western-themed The Pioneer, the space age The Integratrailor, The Sweet which is 70s kitsch and (best of all) The Lux. It’s inspired by The Cramps. Add in  a solar heated saltwater pool, ping pong, fire pits, an archery range and free wifi and it sounds rather fabulous.

I really think that we’re underusing caravans; we know they make a great art gallery, but I think their potential to create temporary community, activate empty spaces and take good ideas from one place to another is largely untapped.

Now – how can I justify a work trip to the Californian desert?