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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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 Pillar Street Essays 1

And but one word with one of us? Couple it with something. Make it a word and a blow.

Romeo & Juliet, Act III Scene I

Words are interesting, with power and meaning, and how we use them as social artists makes a big difference to our work. Using Plain English, just one word where ten would do, helps. Coupling words with actions is even better. That’s why hashtags are so good. Short, simple, and usually related to an action.

Worthing drainSo look at the things local residents write about community issues and you can understand a lot. Like the letter one resident posted to every house in Pillar Street.

It’s about the ‘problem’ of children playing out in the street after school, ‘which has made many residents unhappy’. Now – you could easily read the letter and think there’s an important issue here. Danger, even! But don’t we all believe that children should be playing out in the street? Hasn’t the playing out actually made many other residents happy? An older citizen I met at the weekend, said she loved seeing children playing on her street. Of course, happy people tend not to write letters and stuff them through letterboxes.

The increased play is the result of the street getting younger, as more families move in. It’s part of a natural urban cycle.

Children have as much right to the pavement and the road as everybody else. And if they’re out, we should watch out for each other’s children, pick them up when they scrape a knee, be the ‘eyes upon the street’ that Jane Jacobs talks about. There’s nothing as safe as a busy street where children are playing, parents are watching, and people are passing through. Streets need diversity, and life, and scraped knees, and noise.

To understand what’s really going on, unpick what people write. In the letter stuffed through Pillar Street letterboxes, there are about 300 words. 18 sentences. Of which, 10 are about the person writing the letter – ‘I am a…’, ‘I arranged the…’, ‘my own children’, ‘I thank you all’ and so on. Is it really about the neighbourhood, about Pillar Street, or just about one person who’s struggling with change?

The letter has inspired me, as a social artist and a community organiser, to write The Pillar Street Essays, which will look at some of the issues covered in this first post in more detail. The aim of writing will be to help other social artists and community organisers to do what brings benefit to the most people, even if it is momentarily disruptive, and not to give up because the loudest voices demand things stay as they always have been.

The Pillar Street Essays are inspired by living in one road in Worthing for three years, and look at how the social artist and the community organiser can work in a small neighbourhood. There is no Pillar Street on the map of Worthing, but this is a real place, and these are real people. Pillar Street is a short, one way road on the edge of the town centre. It’s next to the main park in town, and near to the hospital, with a community centre in the next street. The housing is probably late Victorian, terraced on one side with larger, detached properties (some converted into flats) on the other. Some people have lived here for many years, but in the last few years more young families have moved in, attracted by lower house prices than in nearby Brighton.

Closing Worthing Recycle list

After a good run, I’ve just sent a message to a the users of Worthing Recycle. I wanted to archive the message somewhere; in a few days, 70,000 messages and 3000 list members will be gone. “All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.”

Dear friends

Back in May 2006, Simon and I decided within a week of each other to try to independently set up Worthing Freecycle groups to save stuff from landfill. We combined forces, and quickly saw the list grow.

Since then over 3000 subscribers have used the list that has become Worthing Recycle, posting over 70,000 messages, generating 140,000,000 (ish) emails and saving (we reckon, with some back-of-an-envelope maths) over 100,000 items from landfill. Everything from cars to cardboard boxes, plants to plates, chickens to cutlery – a lot less stuff has ended up in a hole in the ground.

We’ve met some great people along the way (even if a bit oddly Simon and I have only met in the real word about three times…), seen some friendships grow as people meet, and dealt with a largely hassle-free list. The odd problem, but for the most part everyone’s remembered our ‘be nice’ rule.

But four years on, our worlds have changed with more children and complicated careers, and we’ve both found it harder to give Worthing Recycle the time and attention it needs. Because even with our loyal band of volunteers it takes a lot of time. Like a duck, you see – to you it just glides into your inbox, but there’s a lot of paddling down below sorting out new members, helping people manage hundreds of emails a week, sorting out disputes between users and moderating messy messages. Muddled metaphor, but hey…

So – without a heavy heart, because it really has been rather fun, we’ve decided to close the list down. Show us how great you are – we’re giving you 48 hours notice, so get stuck in and recycle like crazy this weekend, the last two days of Worthing Recycle’s life. It won’t be here on Monday.

Thanks to all our users past and present, especially to our volunteers, and from me personally to Simon for being a decent sidekick on this little adventure. Have a great Christmas and keep recycling in 2011.

All the best

Worthing Recycle co-owner

PS And please – keep it on topic for the last few days, make me happy 🙂 Offers, wanteds and takens only, you know the drill.

Laughing in Peel Precinct

The square could be a filmset. There’s a pub on the corner, a row of shops (flats above), a park and the Oxford Kilburn club, the school a few doors down. An empty film set now, waiting for the crew, lights, actors, props. A script, of course, and a script.

All London life is here. The whole estate, eleven blocks, 170 floors, tilts up from the square. Rises from the central point, a CCTV camera post, out to the edges – the broad sweep of the train tracks out of Euston, the gentle terraces and Tin Church of Kilburn Park Road. Rises, packed with people; more people than the architects, throwing out the better standards of the Housing Manual 1949 in favour of high-rise living with a bonus for each extra floor built can ever have imagined.

The estate is like Babel after the fall, everyone speaking a different language: English, Somali, Arabic, Portugese, Filipino, Amharic, Yoruba, Albanian, Urdu. And where there should be a noise, a joyous noise unto the Lord, a babble… instead is silence. Nobody talks, everyone walks quietly, quickly. Heads down, hoods up.

Except for two beautiful girls in headscarves, giggling and smiling, chatting and texting, meandering through this and that. They’re the life of South Kilburn. The point, the purpose. Despite the crushing weight of the tower blocks tilting in, the paranoia of the CCTV camera in the centre of the square, the fear of the shops’ shutters, they’re laughing. Happy to be here, today, in Peel Precinct.

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?

How the Lib Dems might just fail

It’s been an exciting few weeks for British politics. After a few years in which a low, dirty Labour party have dragged British politics to new depths (not listening to a million anti-war marchers, shaping legislation around the needs of big business, breaking the economy, massive national debt and mismanaging shameful expenses claims for example) it looked like the forthcoming general election would see the usual low turnout, apathy and indifference.

Until Clegg spoke at the first Leaders Debate. He’s woken people up, inspired them to think about a real alternative and consider voting differently. Sadly, his party could get the most votes but not the most seats under our shabby electoral system, unsurprisingly skewed in Labour’s favour.

But I don’t think that’s the biggest problem. I was a very early Obama supporter, and followed his march to the White House with great interest. The key to his success was learnt when he mobilised people for community action in Chicago. Systems were in place from the start for mass communication, and to mobilise a growing army of supporters. That system was clearly scaleable and future-proof. Obama took millions around the world with him as he marched.

Clegg and the Lib Dems, however, don’t seem to have figured for becoming popular. There’s no system in place to get posters to local supporters, let alone mobilise those people into a mass door-knocking campaign. The Lib Dem party can’t maintain at a grassroots level the momentum it has at the top. Unless they move quickly, their inability to manage their own election campaign will seriously dent their credibility.

Carlisle’s edges

“Carlisle’s all about edges, borders, the delineation of one thing and another.

It’s on the edge of England, or maybe the edge of Scotland. It’s a border town, a frontier place, a fringe; the edge of every empire that the last two thousand years has seen. It’s very much the end, the full stop.

It’s the thing between sentences, full of squares and courtyards, the space between places. It’s transient, shifting, always in a state of flux yet ancient, solid. Rooted in Roman history and a local deity, but alive with even more ancient religions. Standing stones, early Christian Celtic crosses in the cathedral, Green Men on the walls of shops in the market square.

The buildings are heavy, made from a local stone that itself changes from one thing to another, sandstone sedimentary layers blending from deep, faded-blood red to a soft yellow, often in one carved piece. Stone from a Roman quarry eight miles away.

The stone is so eccentric it makes the cathedral look like a patchwork. A feeling that’s only enhanced by the slipped lines of decorations, the wonky and skewiff Norman arches, the might of pillars whose feet don’t quite match each other’s ground levels. Maybe the clay, when they built one bay, was wet, (don’t forget, ever, that Carlisle floods), but for whatever reason, stone pillars sank. So even the cathedral is in a state of movement, neither one thing or another. Where there should be something static, unchanging; there’s something that wiggles like a fish.

There are solid stone city walls and metal barricades on Botchergate. Heavy gates across empty alleyways and railings around war memorials. Clear, strong definitions. Black and white. With so much that is transient, temporary, timely, the city tries to draw strong lines.

Of course, a firm line always makes you see what’s either side of it. So the city’s attempts at definition only make the change, confusion and incoherence more apparent.

Carlisle’s about shift and uncertainty, the edge of places, the impermanence of stone.”

Written for an exhibition as part of the Empty Shops Network tour in Carlisle

Carlisle, city of two halves

The third stop on the Empty Shops Network tour (the second, Shoreham, was so manic it goes unblogged) is Carlisle.

It’s a bewildering, beautiful and bewitching city. I’m staying in a moderately grotty guesthouse a few minutes outside the city centre. The straight route here is down Botchergate (‘bid the dishonest man mend himself; if he mend, he is no longer dishonest; if he cannot, let the botcher mend him’).

Botchergate is the main road into the town, but it’s shabby and semi-derelict at the bottom end, and at the top end is a string of pubs and rough alehouses. The drunkenness on a Friday and Saturday night is so bad that they actually close the road to traffic, to stop people falling under passing cars. Locals are obsessed with how bad the street is, and it’s certainly in need of some love and attention, especially as it’s the gateway to the city.

The other side of the city is where I spent today, starting in the gentle, intimate cathedral. It’s a magnificently shambolic building; some of the arches are wonky, and in one place a pillar sunk during building and the line of detail above is interrupted. The local stone changes colour from a white to a deep red, sometimes in one block, giving the building an even more haphazard feel, like patchwork made from favourite scraps. The ceiling holds the whole together; a dramatic blue with gold stars, best viewed by laying on your back on the stone floor and relaxing for five minutes. Which amuses local schoolchildren no end.

Tullie House Museum is equally eccentric, with Stanley Spencer paintings hung in stairwells and corridors where it’s almost impossible to see them and appreciate their incredible beauty. There’s a Peter Blake tucked away in a stairwell amongst some far less impressive portraits, as if they didn’t quite know where to hang it. And the Roman galleries, with a mock up of Hadrian’s Wall, butt up against a gallery about railway history which includes replica First and Third Class carriages with a view across to the castle.

The Cathedral and Tullie House are in a beautiful quarter, all rambling cobbled streets and corners with arches and turrets like a Harry Potter film set. It’s also home to the perfect Foxes cafe lounge, a quirky and eccentric eaterie with great staff, art on the walls, and comfy seats. The ideal way to end a day exploring.

It’s been difficult to get to grips with Carlisle this week, with the clash between rough drinking and ancient history and contemporary art making it hard to understand. But it’s a great city once you explore and just accept the accidental collisions, chance encounters and culture clashes.

The Empty Shops Network – a big thank you

A couple of years ago I ran a small local arts organisation, the Revolutionary Arts Group, struggling with no resources to stage artist-led festivals and open studio events, and using non-traditional venues for exhibitions- an old bakers, a functioning church, and other community spaces.

As the recession bit, I was fielding more and more enquiries about how we did it – particularly using empty shops – so the Empty Shop Network was born. The aim was to start collecting information about work in the redundant spaces in town centres, and provide a central point of contact for anyone wanting to find events local to them. It was always a big ambition on no budget, but I realised that I was thinking along the right lines when Susan Jones from a-n offered me a small grant to produce a piece of research which became a ‘Knowledge Bank’ article. It laid the foundations for the Empty Shops Workbook as well.

I’m typing this on the train back from Gatwick, afterflying out to Belfast for an a-n AIRTime event where I was able to talk to 60+ Northern Ireland artists about using empty shops.

The last year has seen me writing strategies for local authorities, talking at national community conferences, spending timewith Central St Martins students at graduate week, hobnobbing with the great and occasionally even the good at the Conservatives Arts and Creative Industries Network… the list is kind of endless when you include all the conversations, BBC News interviews, magazine articles and other stuff that’s happened around the fringes.

I’m starting to earn a sensible (but by no means excessive!) wage as an artist and arts manager.
And it’s all because that small, early grant gave me the confidence – it was tacit recognition that I was doing the right thing.

That grant has helped us to access even more funding and set up a range of projects – and the thing I’m most proud of, we’ve already paid about twenty times the original grant to other artists and small creative businesses.

So thank you Susan, and thank you a-n for providing real support just when it was needed.

Tell me about Oswald Denniston

A week ago, I joined a small group of other people running organisations exploring meanwhile projects and temporary spaces, to see how we could work together and collaborate.

One of the ideas I put forward was a touring project, creating a local history exhibition in one week. Underpinning the week’s work with artists would be workshops, meetings and mentoring – so that while publicly the project would end in a one day exhibition, underneath it even more artists would be introduced to the skills needed. Quick thinking – swift marketing – speedy planning. All essential when the opportunity to use an empty shop may come around quickly and be gone in a week, but not skills that every artist can understand.

So a week later, with support from the Meanwhile Project, I’m running a live project in Brixton called ‘Tell me about Oswald Denniston’.

Oswald Denniston was a passenger on the Empire Windrush when it docked at London in 1948, and in the early 1960s became the first African-Caribbean trader in the Granville Arcade, now known as Brixton Village. He passed away in 2000, after becoming a pillar of the local community during a life which took in signwriting, market trading, cycling (he was the first black cyclist in the Herne Hill Cycling Club) and reciting epic verse.

We’ve taken a small unit in Granville Arcade (nowadays known as Brixton Village), set up tables and chairs, and we’re ready to talk about Oswald. It’s a battered, dirty unit among the busy food stalls and near the ‘Brixton Party Shop’. It used to be Taj Textiles; Oswald’s stall in Granville sold fabric. I like that coincidence.

Come and join the conversation at Unit 73, Brixton Village on Tuesday, Thursday or Friday and see the finished exhibition, featuring work by artists including Alice Angus and The Caravan Gallery’s Jan Williams, on Saturday 6th February.

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.


Worthing vs Lewes – what makes small towns tick?

What makes towns tick? I’ve been visiting a lot of town centres on the quest to fill empty shops. Why is Lewes such a lovely place to spend time, while Worthing feels a bit of a wasteland?

It’s more than just built environment, although has something to do with it. Yes, Lewes has lots of history, beautiful old buildings, and is wrapped around some very curvaceous hills which makes the whole place feel exciting. But Worthing has plenty of nice buildings too, especially around the fringes of the town centre – Warwick Street and Brighton Road, Montague Place and Liverpool Terrace, even the bottom end of South Street and the Royal Arcade. There’s lots of lovely Deco and Art Moderne, some quirky Victorian, a bit of eccentric Edwardian, and even some quite chunky, urban Brutalism that I like.

But still, something’s missing. Partly, it’s the quality of shop fronts and shop fittings. In Lewes, the shops feel as though they’ve been there a hundred years without significant change – things feel old, and loved, and trusted – like heirlooms passed from father to son.

I visited a jewellers in Lewes, using a carefully, conscientuously converted butcher’s shop – he was proud of the marks the meat cleaver had left in the floor, and had made his work benches out of timber, blown down in the 87 gale, cut from trees that used to belong to Winston Churchill.

In Worthing too many shop fronts are cheap, and plastic, and the insides of many shops lack character. If it doesn’t feel like the shopkeepers love their own property, it’s hard for us as customers to feel much affection I think. There are exceptions – Pestle & Mortar in Portland Place could have been there fifty years, and Bookstack’s bonkers furniture collection makes it feel lived in.

But more importantly, it’s about stories. If you’ve lived in a town long enough, the place is alive with narrative. In Worthing, where my family have been for generations, I can tell you stories about my dad’s old record shop and where he used to sit selling IT; his father’s time working in an electricity showroom or guarding the gasworks against the IRA in the 1930s; the plots of land his father and grandfather owned, sold to The Corporation.

But sadly, Worthing’s shops don’t carry the same history. I’m sure only a handful remain from my childhood. Where are Bentalls, Gamleys and Allans the stationers? What happened to Optimus Books, Kinch & Lack for school uniform, even Woolworths and Sussex Stationers? Faced with a lack of continuity, it’s hard to love a place – it becomes a collection of retail units, not a tangled mess of shops and stories.

Lewes wears its history proudly, like an eccentric old uncle in waistcoat and pocket watch; and like the old uncle, it will tell you great stories if you ask.

Towns like Worthing need to rediscover that sense of place, the special corners, the stories and songs that weave a town together to make a community.

Empty Shops 2.0

As I’ve had time and space to work on ideas for empty shops this year, and as I’ve been able to support others in their work, I’ve become ever more keenly interested in the ideas, inspiration and ideology behind the work.

The Revolutionary Arts Group started nine years ago, by using an empty bakers in Broadwater as a temporary art gallery. We’ve since brought together artists to use spaces for more conceptual work, as places to inspire site-specific art and installations, and as festival hubs full of exhibits but also hosting workshops, short-term studios and performances. This is a similar flightpath to many other artists and groups who’ve taken over empty shops.

And now I’m watching the birth of a new phase: the thing I’ve always hoped would happen if we gave creative people space and support.

The next wave of empty shops projects won’t just be about artists exhibiting existing work on bare walls: they won’t be about easy in, easy out market space for makers: they won’t be about graphic design to cover empty shops. Although all of these have a place, are (thanks to the work of groups like the Empty Shops network) well established and proven to be better than barren and bare empty boxes littering the high street.

A wave of new projects on the starting blocks across the UK are about interaction and interrogation, community and chat. Over the last week, I’ve talked to people about ideas based on technology and tv remote controls, geography and urban exploration, science and social enterprise.

As funding is becoming available, artists are moving from static ideas to serious reinvention of high street spaces.

The Empty Shops Network has a mission to revive, restore and reinvent the high street. The next year is going to be seriously interesting. You want out of a recession? Welcome to a new high street, a next generation of enterprise, an inspiring movement and the future of town centres. Welcome to Empty Shops 2.0.