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  Apart from a couple of artist’s proofs, it has also remained unpublished.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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Folkestone’s on the edge of something

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#payingartists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Agile Arts – a manifesto for 2011

I was asked today to predict how the arts will be in 2011. The more I think about it, the more I realise the model I trust, believe in and want to use is the one which I used to use in software development.  So this manifesto for Agile Arts (which will be developed further in 2011) is lifted almost word-for-word from the Manifesto for Agile Software Development:

Manifesto for Agile Arts

We are uncovering better ways of developing arts projects by doing it and helping others to do it.

Through this work we have come to value:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working projects over excessive administration
  • Creative collaboration over contracts, conditions and criticism
  • Responding to change over following a plan

That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.

We follow these principles:

  • Our highest priority is to satisfy our audiences through early and continuous delivery of valuable activity.
  • Welcome changing requirements, even late in a project. Agile processes harness change for the good of artists and their audiences.
  • Deliver activity and engagement with audiences frequently, from a couple of weeks to a couple of months.
  • Creatives and those that commission them must work together daily throughout the project.
  • Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.
  • The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation, but Twitter and other social media are a valuable support.
  • Arts activity is the primary measure of progress.
  • Agile processes promote sustainable development.
  • The people commissioning and those creating should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.
  • Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design enhances agility.
  • Simplicity – the art of maximizing the amount of work not done – is essential.
  • The best arts projects emerge from self-organising teams.
  • At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.

Tank Girl in Worthing

Originally written for the Worthing Community website – this comprehensive Tank Girl biog was the site’s most popular page, so when that site was lost I moved it to my old blog, I Hate Dan Thompson, where it’s had 37,695 views. Woo.

“It’s just a matter of trawling our brains for good ideas” Jamie Hewlett

In 1988, artists Jamie Hewlett and Alan Martin created Tank Girl for Issue One of Deadline Magazine. The pair, living in a Worthing bedsit, could have had little idea of where she would take them. While studying at Northbrook College of Art and Design, Hewlett, Martin and fellow student Philip Bond, had created a fanzine called Atomtan. Deadline, created by Steve Dillon and Brett Ewins, was a more accomplished forum for these new talents. Even amongst strips like Wired World, the great Love And Rockets and Hewlett and Martin’s own Fireball XL5, Tank Girl, with its post-feminist and post-apocalyptic vision of a not-too-distant future, stood out.

Seminal style magazine The Face referred to her as “Fab!” while the NME predicated “a rise to world domination”. The anarchic comic strips were full of cut-and-paste imagery, and used a visual equivalent of the sampling that was becoming so popular in a music scene where guitar bands like Pop Will Eat Itself, Jesus Jones and Carter USM were discovering new technology.

It was easy, in the politicised late-’80s and early ’90s, to identify with Tank Girl’s aggressive attitude, upfront humour and sexuality. Hewlett and Martin said “She was Thelma and Louise before the fact; she was Mad Max designed by Vivienne Westwood; Action Man designed by Jean-Paul Gaultier.” She was an obvious icon, and Tank Girl t-shirts began to spring up- including one for the Clause 28 March, against Thatcher’s homophobic legislation. In 1991, Deadline was approached by Wrangler, who, keen to build an advertising campaign for their jeans that was individual and anarchic, used Tank Girl in a series of press ads in 1991. Hewlett and Martin subverted the character at every turn. She flirted with a hippy revival and new age fashion before it was fashionable, dabbled in post-modernism, and hung out with riot girrrls and the beat generation. Tank Girl could be all things to all people and Hewlett and Martin revelled in their artistic freedom.

More surprisingly, readers loved this freedom too. Far from wanting Tank Girl to be tied down to shooting, shouting and spitting, they wanted to see what Hewlett and Martin could dream up next.

Tank Girl wasn’t just a British phenomena, though. Penguin, the largest publisher in Britain, had bought the rights to collect the Tank Girl strips as a book (they all appeared first in Deadline), and offers for foreign rights were plentiful. Before long, Tank Girl had been published in Spain, Italy, Germany, Scandinavia, Argentina, Brazil and Japan; several publishers were fighting for the US license. Eventually, Dark Horse Comics acquired the US rights to publish Tank Girl and a US version of Deadline. Two successful series of Tank Girl’s adventures and two collections created a stir in the US, and before long there was interest in a film version.

Established rock stars including Adam Ant, Billy Bragg, The Ramones and New Order loved her and were keen to be involved in the magazine. In the early ’90s, bands like Blur, The Senseless Things, Carter USM, Curve and Teenage Fanclub all appeared in Deadline. In true post-modern style, comic strip and reality blurred. Many of the bands appeared in the strips and Hewlett’s artwork appeared on their record sleeves. Sarah Stockbridge, a catwalk model and favourite of punk designer Vivienne Westwood’s, brought Tank Girl to life in a series of photos that went on to be used in Elle, Time Out, Select and The Face. Vogue, too, featured Tank Girl. They cited her as a crucial influence on “Bad Girl Fashion” which featured shaven heads, body piercing and tattoos.

Rachel Talalay, producer of Hairspray and Cry Baby for cult director John Waters, and herself director of Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare, called up Deadline’s Tom Astor. Talalay had been sent the Tank Girl book for Christmas and was immediately smitten. With an unswerving belief in the project, she steered the Tank Girl movie into pre-production with MGM in January 1994.

Hewlett, although still living in Worthing with girlfriend and one-time Elastica member Jane Olliver, was spending time with fellow Deadline artist Glynn Dillon, hanging out with bands in Camden’s Good Mixer pub and helping formulate a scene that would become Britpop. Hewlett and Dillon brought their new friends to Worthing, and to seafront venue The Wine Lodge. The pub was described by press as ” Camden on Sea.” Elastica, Menswear and Blur could be seen listening to DJs like Worthy Dan, who went on to work at legendary London club Blow Up, whose website http://www.blowup.co.uk charts their long-running success. After the Wine Lodge, the party carried on at The Factory, a nightclub whose design- by Hewlett, and friends including fellow artist Philip Bond- echoed the Tank Girl strip. Bold red and green stripes, a wall of blown-up panels from Tank Girl set against ’70s wallpaper, a Ford Escort hung from the ceiling and toilets pasted with pages from old annuals were a suitable backdrop for a mix of alternative sounds. [Hewlett’s nightclub designs were eventually lost when I redesigned the club. DT]

Meanwhile, the Tank Girl film was ready for the cinemas. Disappointingly, the final film was a result of much fighting, some agreement, and too much compromise. Although it preserves the anarchic and nonsensical charm of the Tank Girl strips, reeling from Busby Berkley to Mad Max and back through Tex Avery, it mystified critics and public alike. It sacrificed the danger and raw vitality of the original, and was a box office flop. Deadline, after reputedly taking huge gambles on their future with Tank Girl merchandising, folded.

A new Tank Girl comic was short-lived. Meanwhile, Hewlett and Olliver opened a vintage clothes shop in Worthing. Called 49, it, too, folded after a short life. It looked like Hewlett and Martin’s fifteen minutes of fame was over. Hewlett moved to London. After splitting with girlfriend Olliver, he moved into a flat with Blur’s Damon Albarn. He had also just split from his long-term girlfriend, Elastica’s Justine Frischmann.

Hewlett worked on a number of advertising campaigns. His designs also appeared on the set of children’s TV programme SM:TV, presented by ex-pop stars and Byker Grove actors Ant and Dec.

Rumours about how Albarn and Hewlett spent their time were rife, but no-one predicted the end result of their relationship – Gorillaz. The band are four comic characters who could easily have appeared in a Tank Girl strip. Using digital technology, Hewlett has animated his characters, giving a new twist to his distinctive visual style. Interestingly the band’s live line-up includes The Senseless Thing’s drummer Cass. The website, http://www.gorillaz.com is a testament to Hewlett’s creativity. And with Gorillaz winning MTV Music Awards including Best Dance Track and Best Song, Hewlett has taken the earlier crossover of comics and real life to new extremes.

Getting down in the hole

I spend a lot of time thinking about regeneration. It’s a creative process, turning failing towns into interesting places, and I like creative processes. So like every other one, whether it’s drawing or performing poetry or presenting to a film camera, I want to understand how the thing works. What are the right tools, where do you make the first mark, how do you finish the thing?

My hometown has been my nursery slope. Worthing’s been suffering for years, a gradual loss of any sense of place or purpose, and as I’m always plugged in to grassroots community activity, I’ve been watching from the front line. I’ve got my hands dirty, time and again. Literally, cleaning drains backstage at the local theatre, stripping the shabby wreck of a cinema, carving a new cinema out of an old scenery workshop, clearing shops of debris and rubble to make community spaces.

About fifteen years, the council stopped seeing Worthing as a tourist destination and said the town was a business centre. There was no action to back this up, no new business parks or office buildings. Just words on the boards at the town’s gateway.

So since then, it’s been neither one nor the other. The folly of that lack of focus is demonstrated by the fact that while the recession has wiped out a few large employers locally, like Norwich Union and Lloyds TSB, there’s been no investment in tourism and the town can’t capitalise on the rising number of stay-in-Britain tourists.

But Worthing hasn’t reached rock bottom yet. We have a masterplan, and an active regeneration team who are taking exactly the right approach, doing what they can and supporting people as they start small, sustainable initiatives; pushing for better quality and long-term thinking.

That team has helped the planning department to drive up the quality of new developments developments, with decently designed social housing replacing old pubs. There’s a new village of retirement flats in the town centre where there was once a dated art college. On the seafront, the site of the burnt-out Warnes hotel has become a swish and stylish Art Deco block of flats. The ever failing Guildbourne Centre had a minor revamp a few years ago, and cosmetically looks much better – although it still has a completely empty first floor. The historic Dome Cinema is safely restored, even if the Trust managing it aren’t thinking comprehensively about the spaces they have and consequently the building’s massively underused. Along the seafront there’s a cool beachside cafe next to half a dozen art studios carved out of old beach chalets. Next door, there’s a new and truly landmark swimming pool planned, to replace the crumbling concrete Aquarena.

The bigger projects, like the massive, empty Teville Gate quarter, and building new colleges to replace antique huts and 60s architecture, haven’t even made it to the starting line.

But all of this all fits the narrative I’ve understood for regeneration. When I was involved in a huge masterplanning effort in the town, one of the planners said Worthing just needed ‘urban acupuncture’ – small pressure at key points to revive the town. I thought that made sense, and that the projects I’d been involved in – that historic cinema, the beachside cafe and studios, a crumbling old theatre – would be the pin pricks the town needed.

After working on projects in empty shops and seeing towns across the country this year, I’m rethinking that idea though. I’d always thought that the caterpillar, wrapped up in its cocoon, transforms into a beautiful butterfly. It doesn’t. It dies in there, rots away, and something new and beautiful is made from the rotted flesh. There are distinct stages, not a constant process.

I don’t think we can start regeneration while the town’s heading down, and turn it around that way. I don’t think the caterpillar transforms into the butterfly. I thought it did, we could, but I think maybe we need to reach the absolute bottom, and stop, and contemplate where we are.

There’s a story Leo tells in The West Wing. A man falls in a hole. A doctor and a priest can’t help him – they won’t get in the hole. But the man’s friend come along and jumps in the hole too.

“Our guy says, ‘Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.’ The friend says, ‘Yeah, but I’ve been down here before and I know the way out.’”

I’m thinking back to the Brighton I knew as a child; a run-down, shabby seaside town with no place or purpose. It had to sink really low; that pushed property prices down, allowed people to think creatively about the spaces available and how to use them, and allowed a meteoric rise from failing city to special place.

And looking at Margate, where an absolute decimation of the town centre has led to new, fresh thinking and focused action. Margate, with its magnificent old town, will thrive in the next few years.

A bushfire clears the ground for new growth. Plants have adapted, with extra shoots that push up quickly after a fire and seeds that need the heat to germinate. The Eucalyptus even encourages fire, with oil-filled leaves, so that it can start new growth and spread.

I suspect that the people that usually start a town’s renaissance, the artists and writers, the entrepreneurs and visionaries, are the same. They need the clear ground and the heat. They need to get down in the hole.

In the past few years, Worthing has started to fill with refugees from the property wars in Brighton and London. I suspect that this is a false dawn; it looks like a new, comfortable, middle class rebirth but really these people, on the whole, want to dress Worthing up as Brighton’s younger brother or make a London-lite, with Starbucks and Gap. I don’t think that will ever work. I don’t think people living in the town are feeling a shift, a change of culture. Trying to imitate Brighton just makes it clearer we’re thirty years behind them, in terms of regeneration.

I want to see Worthing become a better Worthing, not an imitation of somewhere else. Give me a burnt space, clear ground, a fresh place to start from. Jump down in this hole with me, will you?

Empty shops in Shoreham by Sea

I’ve probably made some old Tory very happy today; I got on my bike in search of work. Specifically, hunting down empty shops to use in Shoreham-by-Sea.

In the Empty Shops Network’s home town of Worthing, the Borough Council has forged a partnership with neighbouring Adur District Council, which means that our empty shops money covers Worthing, Lancing, Shoreham and Fishersgate. And we’re looking for a big, flagship project in Adur, so I’ve spent the day cycling to find likely sites.

I was actually born in Shoreham, in the maternity unit in the old workhouse. I’ve worked there a lot, as a founder member of the Beach Dreams festival and as sound man for Richard Durrant. I’ve exhibited in, got married at, and floodlit the outside of, the Church of the Good Shepherd on Shoreham Beach – and once, notably, heard the Vicar’s confession. I lived on Shoreham High Street, in a flat above a charity shop, with views across the mudflats towards the houseboats. And I partied quite hard on the houseboats a few times, too.

So I know Shoreham well, and it’s sad to see it suffering. There are a few empty shops, and a downmarket Woolworths clone in the old Woolworths. In a small town, those few empty shops really have an impact.

Saddest of all, though, is a monumental building in the middle of historic Shoreham town, which looks like it’s been bought for redevelopment. It’s an odd bit of architecture, vaguely arts and crafts-ish; striped brickwork, odd detailing, hints of turrets and towers.

There are four shops at street level, and the front two facing onto the old war memorial and church yard are suspiciously bunker-like with thick walls and small windows (pictured). One of them’s empty. Behind them, down a side street, are two more shop units, both more traditional but in poor condition. Both of these are empty.

Above it all is the old church hall and parish offices, and from the state of the building and the boarded-up doors I’d guess these are empty, too.

I’m not sure what the plans for this quirky architectural oddity are, but I’d like to find out more about the building – and I’ve got a site visit later this week to start exploring and planning. Can we bring a bit of temporary use to Shoreham town centre, perhaps some community shenanigans like The UpMarket project we ran in Worthing? It would sit well amongst the great little independents, scattering of cafes and delis, and a flea market in the old Tarmount Studios – all of which make Shoreham well worth a visit.

Hopefully…

Hyperlocal arts development

The arts are going to have to accept that there’s less funding in the next few years – Britain’s government is, let’s face it, effectively bankrupt.

At the same time, the government is exploring ideas of getting truly local, supporting communities as they develop their own ideas – ‘localism’, ‘local distinctiveness’ and ‘hyperlocal’ are buzzwords I keep hearing.

When I joined Worthing Arts Council, the town’s community arts forum, it was a struggling group with literally a handful of members led by a perfectly nice but not very dynamic old lady. It was just a committee that met once a month to moan.There was talk about folding the organisation, about giving up, of it all not being worth the time and effort.

But I could see the potential of bringing people together, encouraging debate and even disagreement, helping groups to collaborate across artforms and lobbying the local authority. So I started with an open meeting once a month. And once a few more people were onboard, I suggested a strategy, which was formally adopted in 2007. Nothing complicated, a series of simple steps broken down into bite-sized bulletpoints. A second strategy in 2009 made sure that things kept moving.

Since then – and as a direct result of three sides of A4 that I wrote in 2007 – membership has increased tenfold, Worthing Arts Council has been given funding to distribute to members, and the group has become a vital force and an important voice.

It’s delivered a range of events directly, like the Ice Prince Arts Festival, and given funding to even more – with grants starting at only £50. But that’s enough for a small arts group to take an ad in the paper, print some flyers, or cover the hire cost of a venue – and that’s stuff that makes a real difference to a small community gathered around an interest in watercolours, weaving or whatever.

All this has cost the local authority less than the average annual wage of an Arts Development Officer, and has been delivered by the people who are fighting for this stuff, rather than by policy wonks and planners who want to tick boxes.

So – let’s see more money given directly to the community, without ringfences and red tape. Money that meets local needs, not national agendas.

The Trouble With Artists

It’s a new year, and for the past 16 days I’ve been in planning heaven; brainstorming ideas, setting some targets, making sure events are lined up for 09 and getting ready for a really good year. (Oh – and getting a little frustrated with the Ice Prince!)

One major aim is to build the number of artists we’re working with. And this is always a problem – I can’t work with every artist that approaches the Revolutionary Arts Group so we turn down at least as many as we accept. I never say why…

But Ariel Hyatt from Cyber PR has hit the nail on the head over here, when she says “there are two types of artists. complainers vs. doers / negative vs. positive attitudes / builders vs. idlers / artists that are willing to takes responsibility vs. ones who are angry and entitled.”

So – if you’re a doer, with a positive atitude, willing to build your career and willing to take responsibility; please get in touch. It would be great to work with you in 2009…

Made In Worthing

So – Worthing will get a new arts festival in September 2009, a year from now.

Made In Worthing will showcase contemporary visual and live arts, music and literature, produced by local artists, companies and groups – and will continue the tradition of the now-defunct Artists and Makers Festival to bring interesting, challenging and unusual guests to the town. For the record, they’ve included Bill Drummond, Dave Gorman, Andrew Collins, Gimpo, The Caravan Gallery and acts from the Big Chill.

Made In Worthing will aim to explore the place and spirit of Worthing and take a sideways look at our local identity. The whole thing will be brought together by the Revolutionary Arts Group and will happen in September 09.

Interested?