Fresh challenges, new collaborations and further adventure

P1020430It’s been a good few years for Revolutionary Arts, and we’ll be 13 years old this Thursday. As always with a birthday, that means some reflection – and some thinking about the future..

We’ve set up all sorts of projects with Revolutionary Arts. One, Empty Shops Network, has made the case for town centres, and it’s now accepted that we should be reusing spaces on our High Streets for something more interesting.

Projects like Workshop 1a and Workshop 24 tested the ‘agora’ idea, Retail Ready People gave young people a voice in the debate about tomorrow’s High Street, and I’ve just curated the Amy Winehouse Foundation’s pop up shop in Camden. All that experience meant that I was asked to write a book, Pop Up Business For Dummies – seeing it in a bookshop for the first time was rather special.

Starting #riotcleanup in August 2011 meant I got to hang out with some great people, And building on that experience, Revolutionary Arts got funding for #wewillgather and used it to test, prototype and try new ideas around getting people together to do good things. It’s shown that people love the places they live, and are willing to roll their sleeves up and make change happen.

Travelling to talk about these ideas and to help people start their own projects, I’ve seen more of England than ever before. I’ve fallen in love with some of the places people never tell you that you should visit – Boston, Coventry, Leeds, Margate, Rochdale, Southsea. Trips to Belfast, Rotterdam, Stresa, and Newcastle in Australia have been experiences which I’ll never forget.  I’ve been to 10 Downing Street, watched the New Year fireworks from the roof of the BBC’s Bush House, and went to the Olympic Opening Ceremony. Better than the places were the people I’ve met; inspiring, challenging, entertaining.

I’ve been feeling a little bit like that work’s done. I need a fresh challenge, new angels to wrestle with, another unexplored corner of the map. And I’d like your help. So – as Jed Bartlett would say, what’s next?

You can tell from this site what I’m interested in, and the skills, knowledge and experience I have. You might have heard me talk, seen me on telly, or read something I’ve written.

I’m interested in architecture, in the problems around housing, in cycling and the infrastructure that goes with it, in the return of small-scale manufacture, in local distinctiveness, in easy listening music, in going back to Newcastle NSW for a longer visit, in writing about England, in looking at the working class culture I grew up in, in working with young people, in Mod style, in reusing old buildings, in design and typography, in making social media useful, in tomorrow’s High Street, and in taking a DIY approach to problems. I’m looking for fresh challenges, new collaborations and further adventures. Want to talk about something?

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Tales from the empty shops frontline in Boston and Holbeach

The Boston shop had been open about a week, word was getting round and we were getting many people coming back again and again to attend our free arts activities…..which was great, it meant we had an opportunity to engage them in conversation and find out some real information.

We exhibited artists’ work produced during the previous 3 months consultation phase, letters created for shop windows leading up to our launch event and information on community groups to raise awareness of their work.   The information sharing and networking was woven in amongst the practical activities, the cups of tea, the knitting and nattering…..and listening.

Although I was mainly in the Holbeach shop, I also programmed myself in to the Boston shop a few times, just so I could get a feel for the differences…..with 14 miles between them, one a busy town and small port, the other a small fenland market town, there were many.

It was during one of these times that Dennis appeared silently at my side, ‘I’d like a word’ he said.

‘I make canes……with carved heads, would you like some in the shop?’

We chatted as we drank tea.   As well as carving the most exquisite duck heads (mainly) on long hazel canes, Dennis also created puppet heads.   He wanted to set up a touring puppet theatre.   He was from the local area, he had the most amazing skills and up to now nobody had known about them.  Dennis told me he had previously worked with another artist and asked if I’d like to see pictures of the work they completed.  Wow! (sorry but I don’t have permission from the artist to give you any further details, you’ll just have to trust me and it wasn’t puppets).

Dennis brought in his canes the next day, he’d also made a frame for displaying them.  His work attracted attention every day with shop visitors admiring his skill and the playfulness of the carved heads.  And as for his puppets; I forwarded his contact details to a Lincoln theatre company who often use masks and puppetry in their work…..the two are now talking.   Dennis is working on his next large scale collaborative installation.

A guest post for the Empty Shops Network blog by artist Carol Parker. As Transported Empty Shops Co-ordinator, she programmed and curated two empty shops, one in Boston and one in Holbeach, during July-August 2013

Exploring Newcastle, New South Wales

‘We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time’ TS Eliot

P1050553There are three answers to the question (often asked) ‘yes, but what do is your actual job?’ The first, the most honest, is that I’m a social artist. The second, for people who wear suits, is that I’m a consultant. The third, the most secret, is that I’m an explorer.

I’ve been to dozens of towns and cities across Great Britain, discovering insane buildings in Leeds and unusual history in Coventry; I have spent a few short days in Rotterdam and Amsterdam, places that let DIY culture get under the paving slabs; I’ve wandered through an Italian village that was like Portmeirion without the rain. The furthest I’ve been in my exploring, though, was my recent visit to Newcastle in New South Wales to take part in the Creating Spaces conference.

It’s a place I’ve wanted to visit since I first found out about Renew Newcastle and the work of Marcus Westbury and his team.

P1050864Newcastle is a post-industrial town, that just a few years ago had a seriously hollowed-out city centre. Hunter Street was full of empty shops, and other buildings were emptying out too. But that changed, and by 2011, Newcastle was on the Lonely Planet Guide’s top ten list. And 106 Renew Newcastle projects later, it’s hard to imagine there was ever a problem that needed fixing.

Newcastle’s city centre (the Central Business District or CBD) is long and thin, a familiar enough layout for anyone from an English seaside town. This city centre is of course off-centre, the geography skewed by the harbourside to the north and the beaches to the south. Hunter Street is the spine, stretching parallel to the harbour.

At Newcastle East is the headland of the harbour, stunning beaches, magnificent sunrises, old warehouses turned into holiday apartments and an Art Deco sea bathing pool. Near this end of town is the Hunter Mall, the main shopping area of Hunter Street. This is where Renew Newcastle has had the biggest impact.

P1050730It’s an area of beautiful heritage buildings, glorious Art Deco facades against deep green trees and impossibly blue skies. Buildings are grand, and proud, and show that Newcastle was a rich, industrial city. Think Leeds or Manchester, but with brighter skies and clearer air. The ghosts of old businesses are everywhere; plaques mark banks that have traded for 100 years, shop names are found in ghost signs, and there are more significant enterprises who carved their name in stone. There are ghosts too, of the failure of salvation by brick; the skeletal remains of an ambitious, million-dollar scheme to encourage a street market to appear.

P1050725There’s also an impressive amount of street art. Vibrant murals, quirky quotes like Facebook inspirational memes gone real world, and creative flyposters are sprinkled along the Hunter Street spine. The best are the works curated by Street Art Walking’s Simone Sheridan, and they add colour and draw you up side streets as you walk.

But Hunter Mall doesn’t have many empty shops, though. Not now. These have been replaced, first with temporary projects brought in by Renew Newcastle, but then by other businesses.

Projects like Make Space, a collective of female makers who fit the shop around family, and vintage photobooth hire company Strip of a Lifetime, and roller derby stickermaker NataLickIt are finding new uses for old spaces. They’re pioneers, opening up the city for the entrepreneurs that always follow.

And follow they have, here like anywhere else in the world. Newcastle is starting to get its share of cool cafes and hipster coffee shops. A national chain tried to move in, piggybacking on the creativity, but was ignored. People stuck to the independents and the chain closed and left town.

And perhaps more importantly – Renew Newcastle graduates, having tried and tested in temporary premises, are now going full-time and filling spaces.

P1050907Renew Newcastle has a good track record of encouraging start-ups, with workspaces like The Bank of Ideas and Studio Melt, studios like Shannon Hartigan Images, and beautiful, quirky shops like Alie Jane as living testament, but that’s not its aim. Renew Newcastle set out to achieve the activation of empty buildings, maintaining them and improving the look of the city centre while that post-industrial future is worked out.

The real achievement though is discovering that post-industrial future as part of the process. Newcastle is now a vibrant, creative city, where artist-makers, graphic designers, illustrators and software developers alike are making new products for export to a global market. And at the same time, improving the place where they live and make it an attractive destination for a worldwide audience who like architecture, and heritage, and creativity, and culture, and good cafes. And the great beaches don’t hurt, either.

All the artists

Image by Dean Barwell - Revolutionary Arts, Pop-Up Gallery

This could take a while, but I’m compiling a list of all the artists we’ve worked with in ten years of Revolutionary Arts. I haven’t listed all the artists who took part in the successful open house schemes we ran in Horsham and Worthing yet…

  • Alice Angus
  • David Armitage
  • Eugenie Arrowsmith
  • Sue Baker
  • The Bamboo Band
  • Ben Barker
  • Dean Barwell (photo – top)
  • Pearl Bates
  • Nathan Bean
  • Dan Belton
  • Big Chill Recordings
  • Nic Blair
  • Steve Bomford
  • Ed Boxall
  • Russ Bravo
  • Robin Brenchley
  • Bob Brighton
  • Tessy Britton
  • Brenda Brooks
  • Caroline Brown
  • Chris Brown
  • Faye Brunning
  • Buckler’s Reel
  • Buzz Theatre
  • James Caldicott
  • Maria Carapeto
  • The Caravan Gallery
  • Steve Carroll
  • Nikki Cheal
  • Sin Mui Chung-Martin
  • Naomi Clark
  • Clothkits
  • Andrew Collins
  • John Collins
  • CoMA Sussex Ensemble
  • Louisa Cook
  • David Cottingham
  • Janine Craye
  • Adrian Crick
  • Anthony Cropper
  • Culture Quarter Programme
  • Susan Cutts
  • Abigail Daker
  • Luna Davenport
  • Harriet Davies
  • Lloyd Davies
  • Michelle Dawson
  • Alexandra Dipple
  • Bianca Donnelly
  • Bill Drummond
  • Lou Durham
  • Melissa Ede
  • Caroline Elderfield
  • John Evans
  • John Farmelo
  • Pete Fijalkowski
  • Christine Forbes
  • Becca Foster
  • Leanne Foster
  • Mark Gaynor
  • Susanna Gibson
  • Gimpo
  • Gerald Glover
  • Kenn Goodall
  • Gary Goodman
  • Dave Gorman
  • Wendy Greene
  • Justine Grice
  • Sheila Guyatt
  • Sue Harding
  • Sally Harris
  • Katherine Haynes
  • Ned Hoskins
  • Sonia Hunt
  • The Ice Prince Orchestra
  • Alison Ingram
  • Sarah Johnson
  • Jessica Jordan
  • Susie Kershaw
  • Christiane Kersten
  • Fozia Khaliq
  • Olga Kohutek
  • Eva Lauermann
  • Hugh Lloyd
  • Sian Lloyd
  • Sam Lock
  • Rose Mackew
  • Daniel Martin
  • Natalie Martin
  • Linda McVeigh
  • Meanwhile Project
  • Natasha Middleton
  • Alison Milner
  • Alison Milner-Gulland
  • MLA
  • Moor Arts
  • Hazel Mortley
  • Paul Munson
  • Blanca Negro
  • Patricia Neve
  • Jonathan Nyati
  • Nick Orsborn
  • Edith Pargh Barton
  • Michael Parkes
  • Nell Pascoe
  • Fred Pipes
  • Geoff Plant
  • Ingrid Plum
  • Ivan Pope
  • Michael Radcliffe
  • Linda Rainbird
  • Rainbow Shakespeare
  • Dayna Richman
  • Tim Riddihough
  • Steve Rowland
  • Joanne Rowling
  • Linda Rush
  • Trevor Rush
  • Justin Sainsbury
  • Ben Salter
  • Sarah Sherry
  • Nirmal Singh Darman
  • Chris Slade
  • Micki Slade
  • Pete Slight
  • South Kilburn Neighbourhood Trust
  • Spacemakers
  • Steve Speller
  • Martine Spencer
  • Spilt Milk Dance
  • Belinda Stephenson
  • Hannah Stewart
  • Teresa Stewart-Goodman
  • Elizabeth Stiles
  • Textile Arts Forum
  • Theatre Akimbo
  • Dan Thompson
  • Netta Thompson
  • Nigel Thompson
  • Tracey Thompson
  • Duncan Thrussell
  • Maggie Tredwell
  • Richard Vobes
  • Clive Vosper
  • Andy Waite
  • Helena Weaver
  • Lisa Weller
  • West Sussex Writers’ Club
  • Caroline Whiteman
  • Georgina Williams
  • Jan Williams
  • Sarah Young
  • Debbie Zoutewelle

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.

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.

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.

The Empty Shops Agenda*

The a, b, c, of Empty Shops

“The fact that the trees are in blossom very briefly is what makes them important to us.” Tim Anselm (The Beekeepers blog, 1st Apil 2009)

This is an agenda for people using empty shops, slack space and setting up meanwhile projects, looking at the when, why and how of empty shops based on years of experience. It’s also an attempt to make it clear that not every project is perfect for an empty shop. These are special places, and the meanwhile shopkeepers are special people.

a. Embrace The Meanwhile

Like the Buddhists say, it’s about living in the moment. Right now, there’s lots of empty space and all the experts agree, by the time I finish writing this sentence there will be even more. 1000 shops a week are closing. When we’re out of the current recession, there won’t be as much.

Enjoy it while you can – move quickly, be agile, and think on your feet, or you’ll miss it. Grasp the nettle, grab the moment, and embrace the meanwhile. What did you do in the recession, daddy?

b. Find The Character

Using empty shops for temporary pop-up projects is about much more than getting an idea onto the high street for cheap. The best projects are celebrating the local, finding the distinctive, engaging with the character of empty spaces, exploring new ideas and exciting the neighbourhood. As such, they are useful for community groups, local authorities and central government wanting to address a variety of different agendas.

These projects and the places have their own character – find it and embrace it, don’t try to make it look like everything else on the street – or like everything else you do, either.

c. Enjoy The End

The success of an empty shop project may be measured in many ways. It can increase footfall for a neighbourhood, supporting local traders. It can raise the profile of a community event. It can bring together a new partnership, whether that’s a group of excited, inspired and engaged individuals or a working relationship between organisations and authorities.

And it’s quite alright for a project not to work. Like Becket said, “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Empty shops make great laboratories for new ideas and new businesses. And– in a week, a month, or half a year – it will all be over. Look forward to the end, it means it’s time to start planning a new project.

*well, it was a manifesto – but that’s a bit ranty. A polite agenda, maybe.

Written as part of the Empty Shops Network project