#chumbrella

The problem of how to create social spaces in public places is a well-known one, and there’s lots of attempts at regeneration that fail to make public spaces work.

At a recent workshop in Stoke, artists tried to wrestle with this problem. Sarah Nadin was one of half-a-dozen artists I worked with, and her solution was #chumbrella. Perhaps best known for her sculpture remembering Stoke’s connections with Lidice, which she produced as half of Dashyline, #chumbrella is a more light, agile and nimble approach to creating art in public places.

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Inspired by the act of sharing an umbrella with a stranger the day before, Sarah imagined a place where a distinctive hashtagged umbrella was a sign that the person was willing to share it with a stranger.

During the workshop, Sarah created a black-and-white prototype and took to the streets. It started conversations and got people’s interest.

So when I was looking at my own London Road project in Stoke, I could see a natural fit. London Road is one and a half miles long, but – and despite being plentiful in parks, gardens and green spaces – it’s not a very social place. People in shops stop and talk, but the street is all about bustle as you’d expect on the main road in and out of the city.

So as part of the London Road project, with funding from Appetite, I asked Sarah to move #chumbrella from prototype into production. She created a yellow and white design, the umbrella split in half rather than the more conventional segments, and had a first batch manufactured. It’s a move from big sculpture to being a social artist, so I feel like the investment is in the artist as much as the artwork. And if this idea spreads, she’ll be creating literal pop up social spaces in streets across the country.

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The first public outing for #chumbrella was a walk along London Road. Half a dozen artists agreed to be the first to carry #chumbrella, and they started a dozen conversations, as well as making lots of people smile as they walked from Campbell Place to The Boulevard and back again.

#chumbrella will be back on London Road in September, and I’ll be carrying one as a useful tool in my work there. But the aim is also to see how far it can be rolled out, creating a simple How To guide and distributing the first batch of #chumbrellas to people around the country who can use them. Open source, freely available public art? The medium is, as they say, the message.

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London Road

P1130382Stoke’s London Road connects the buzzing, active communities of Boothen, West End and Oakhill to the town centre along a long, straight road that’s full of history, unusual buildings, old architectural features and public spaces waiting to be brought to life. It’s a beautiful street, as the photos I’ve taken so far show.

So it’s going to be a great place to spend the next year as artist-in-residence for the whole road, collecting stories, working alongside local people, and making connections between communities. I’ll be living for a quarter of the year in Penkville Street, one of the steep terraces that climb off London Road.

To see some of what I’ve found so far, you can download a map of London Road’s significant people and places.

P1130397This year-long artwork commissioned by Appetite uses the whole street as a venue. As I uncover stories from London Road, they’ll be marked by the reanimation of unloved spaces, restoration of original features, reinvention of forgotten buildings, gentle reminders of why the road is special, and regeneration from the bottom up.

It will end in the publication of a book. This will be a psychogeographical, slightly fictional telling of the story of London Road, from one end to the other, from the Roman to the modern day. In that writing, focused on one special road and the people who use it, I’ll tell the whole story of Stoke.

You can follow the progress, and join in with the project, with the Twitter hashtag #allabouttheroad or on a Facebook page.