Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Community Maker 2016

Community Maker is a 3 year project, a partnership between British Ceramics Biennial (now known as The Clay Foundation - since the activity delivered is all year around, and not just during the Biennial) and AirSpace Gallery. 
In 2015 - the project was all about aiming to create space for a community to get together, eat, meet and make - and explore together, how to develop the area. I am the lead artist of the project, and much of my thinking around the project stems from the very interesting dilemma of being an artist and a resident. I have worked in public and community contexts many times over the years, but this is the first time I have done so within my own neighbourhood. The interest for me stems from the context we, as a family, find ourselves in, as members of the £1 home scheme - we were tasked, as part of the deal, with being 'active members of the community - and agreeing to be part of community life, using our skills and resources to support the community to develop.' We, and 32 other households across 4 streets agreed to this when we took on our £1 houses in this area. I was really interested in exploring what role an artist might be able to take in this context, and the Community Maker project takes this as a starting point.
The project methods came from thinking about the Homemaker tableware, designed by Enid Seeney (the first female to be trained within the design team at the Spode Factory - a strange coincidence, which I was not aware of when first setting out on the project - given that BCB are based at Spode.) The homemaker design came at a time just after the war, when people began to think again about a little luxury being brought back into the home, the plate is a template for 'modern living' and proposes the ingredients of a successful home - my thinking around this was that though I became a homemaker when we took on our £1 house - the context is not just about me in my house, but all of the houses on the street, and this got me wondering - what are the ingredients of a successful community - and what would a plate for that look like? 
In addition, early meetings with other community members had a real 'make do and mend' feel to them - in this area, a residents have told us during the project, people have tended to get on and organise things for themselves, without much in the way of outside resources. One such 'tradition' in the area that has sprung up out of this has been get togethers where people 'bring a plate' - with everyone contributing a plate of something, altogether a community meal has been created. 
I love the idea of all these different plates, coming from all the houses - and the thought was that what if we were able to celebrate that attitude with a special community plate, which comes out of people's cupboards at community events - but which was not regarded as a make do and mend activity, and a point of necessity, but a choice for the community to share - celebrated with this special community ceramic.
The biggest hurdle we face in Community Maker 2015 was the lack of a venue - and so we ended up running our sessions from a tent on the newly developed green space,
What we know from 2015 is that without a community base, it is really difficult to build momentum in the area, and for the community to begin to become successful and feel connected. 
Also in the summer last year, The Oasis Social Club came to our area, with lead artist Rebecca Davies, though the idea around this project was always to be housed within a temporary structure, the project aimed to work with the community to uncover the communities hopes and aspirations, and to support the community to identify what would be needed to help the area to grow.
Throughout our conversations, and events the recurring issue of the need for a community space was raised, both within the Community Maker and The Oasis Social Club projects. Since the Community Maker sessions in Summer 2015, the community group have attempted to organise events, but the lack of a space has continually made these events difficult to manage.
Since the positive experiences of 2015's 'Community Maker' programme, we were contacted by the City Council, who asked us to look into the viability of turning the currently boarded up pub over to the community, keeping all of these things in mind, it would seem to make sense if Community Maker 2016 were building on the successes of the 2015 programme - and cross checking if the results are right, and that in fact the thing that this community most needs to make it successful is a space, and importantly, ascertaining whether there is enough energy, commitment and will within the community to run the space if it is handed over by the council.
Therefore our primary aim for Community Maker 2016 is to find out: Does the community want to take over and run The Portland Inn?
If so, what and who would that involve?
Is there enough commitment from the community to make this work?
If the community were to take over and run The Portland Inn, what activities and events would happen there and who may be the potential tenants who might be interested in being involved in taking space in the building, in order to ensure financial stability?
Dena Bagi and Jo Ayre from Clay Foundation and I have just spent time planning for this year, and leading in to 2017, and it feels like a very exciting strand is about to be explored
Over 4 weeks the Community Group will organise events and activities each day - and within that Community Maker will aim to deliver 5 days of that programme within the pub, before working on a physical artwork, in the form of 'Talking Tableware' - using digital technologies to bring the ceramics to life with the voices of the community.
In 2015 events were generally for two or three hours - but in 2016 - in order to see the pub activated, it will be more of a residency approach - I will be opening the pub from 11 - 4pm on each of the session days, working within the space, and then running a public workshop in mould making, mould use and ceramic glazes - with the community - working together to create a set of table ware for the artwork.
We will then present the experimental artwork over two events, one aimed at artists and other creative practitioners who may be interested in discussing the role of food within art projects, and the second a community Christmas Meal, where the artwork will be shown.
The exciting and unknown part is in exploring conductive glazes, mixing in arduino technology - and in particular seeing if we can make talking tableware - something which we hope to work on towards 2017.
In order to continue to explore the role that food and making can have in supporting the community in coming together, we will be keeping in mind the Portland Inn development project's four week timetable, but also looking to incorporate our own design process.
Our ultimate goal for 2017 is to create a community ceramic plate, which everyone has in their house, and which comes out for community get togethers, when people will 'bring a plate' to contribute, and also to set the precedence for community meals/food sharing in the area.
The aim for 2016 will be to work together to create a hand-made dinner service, as a prototype artwork for 2017. We can return to the highlights of 2015 - imagery and texts already gathered, and use these as starting points for 2016. We will aim to also be able to give a full experience for the community, so that if anyone were to follow all of the community workshops, they would have experienced a full range of clay making processes, including: making moulds from objects, using the moulds to create tablewares, printing onto wares and glazing wares - and then finally hearing their own voices within the wares.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Adopt a Mobile Bird Hide

UPDATE: The Mobile Bird Hide will be going to Hulme Community Garden Centre, who will us it as a nature hub for carrying out a nature audit within a reclaimed car park. We hope lots of people will enjoy the ownderful bird hide.
ADOPT A MOBILE BIRD HIDE: We need to find a new home for the Birder's Paradise Mobile Bird Hide. It is a wonderful, converted caravan, now a mobile nature hub. Based on a traditional RSPB Bird Hide, there is space for a nature library, binoculars and other resources, and a little room, which can house a portaloo if necessary, but is also a good spy spot for watching the birds.
 We would ideally like the Hide to go to a project/organisation interested in nature, or a educational establishment who could use it as a resource, and can use it to tell people about the importance of supporting nature.
The Hide will be free to a good home, but we would like to know a few things: 1. who are you and your organisation/project? 2. where will you keep it? 3. who will use it (your organisation, and who with - participants)  and 4. how will it be used?
Please get in touch to express your interest ASAP by email to Anna Francis: amf@airspacegallery.org - More info of the hide in action: http://annafrancis.blogspot.co.uk/2014/08/birders-paradise-stoke-on-trent.html
Do share with anyone you think will be interested.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

A-N Go and See - Artist Led Development: Place and Resources

AirSpace Gallery is about to enter its 10th year as an artist led organisation in Stoke-on-Trent, and as a result we are thinking about resilience, and how organisations can connect to the places where they are to ensure a sustainable approach.
With this in mind, each of the 3 AirSpace Directors have been on trips around the country to meet up with organisations and individuals whose projects have been around a while, or who we think are making interesting connections to the places that they are situated in. We have been wonderfully supported by an A-N go and see bursary, allowing us time and financial support to make these visits.
Glen has been to Preston, Andy to Sheffield and I have been to Margate.
Recently I have been thinking about the long term impacts of public art and arts programming; Probably for a while, but brought into sharp focus, when I was invited to speak at the 'In Certain Places' and Ixia (Public Art Think Tank) conference 'The Art of Dwelling: Exploring long term approaches to public art and place.'
This was a really interesting opportunity to hear about projects from across the UK who are all  still going after quite a time, what these projects all had in common was that the people leading on them were absolutely embedded with the place that their organisation was based. The projects were specific, and bespoke to those places, and had a flavour to them which would not be possible anywhere else. The projects are site-responsive, completely engaged with the particularity of the places that they inhabit - and in most cases, really making a difference to participants, and the places they operate. It was a privilege to be invited to speak alongside Deveron Arts, In-Situ, In Certain Places and others, but what stayed with me, was a question about what the organisations are responding to in their prospective places, and whether there was any commonality in approach.
It got me thinking about Stoke, and the particularity of this place: and raised some questions for me about the relationship between a place's resources, and the projects that happen there.
In recent years the projects that we have engaged in at AirSpace have often questioned the role of the artist in society, have engaged with overlooked resources (space, skills, materials) and have, in recent years, had recurring themes around food and green space in cities.
Interestingly, we are not alone in this here, and so, this go and see bursary felt like a great chance to undertake some research into the resources in another place, and the effect that may or may not have on the artists living and working there.
I decided to visit Margate - I am really fascinated by the amazing speed of the development of the arts scene in Margate in the last 5 years. My interest is partly personal (my family are from the area, and I worked, with my sister and brother in the Dreamland Fun Park as a teenager) but also, I am interested in Margate as a place that lost its industry, and where the regeneration and development solution has been mainly culture led. This is very relevant to us in Stoke - the industry is very different, but the solutions may be shared.
Turner Contemporary opened in Margate in 2011, and I was there at the Opening, to document and review the opening for A-N.
Nearly 5 Years on, I wanted to look at the changes in the artist led scene in Margate in those 5 years, and to find out from those working there, what it is like to be in Margate now. I set up meetings with Leigh Clarke, at Crate - as I was interested in talking about the changes in Margate, from the point of view of a space that had been in Margate before Turner, I then spoke to Nick Morley at Resort Studios, a very young space, which has achieved so much in such a short space of time and finally to Dan Thompson, an Independent Artist, who moved with his family to Margate a few years ago.
My first appointment was with artist, printmaker Leigh Clarke - in his studio at Crate.
Crate was started in 1996, by some graduates from Canterbury University - a disused print works, they wanted it to be a space for artists to work, and also a project space, for others to visit.
It always had a theoretical slant to it, originally housing the 'Critical Research Bureau' - and the connections to research continue today.
Soon after Crate opened, Limbo opened up next door, creating a bit of a hub and a great relationship between the spaces - which culminated around 2 years in an almost merger, as the two organisations looked to secure the old Burton building nearby.
When the project fell through, they asked Leigh to be a Director there, to help the organisation's develop in the next few years.
Leigh Clarke, in his studio at Crate
Leigh moved to the area, from London two years ago. It was really interesting to hear from Leigh about his experience - he described his experiences as an artist, with a studio in London, and the gritty reality of Hackney at that time, a trip to the local pub, 'The Gun' was literally the place you visited to get a gun, but a recent visit reveals the stark realities of gentrification - the pub now serve craft beer, The Prada and Burberry factories are now round the corner. Margate today feels like Hackney did 10 or 15 years ago. The fact that artists are completely part of the gentrification was not lost on Leigh - he talked about the strange push pull of the process. Its a process that is replicated in every city - we (artists) move in, the place is gritty, reality on the doorstep - our presence starts to change things, cafes open, the street art improves, the costs to rent space start to go up, other types of business start to take an interest and move in, space becomes a premium, artists can no longer afford the rent, artists start to move out (and anyway the place has changed, so artists aren't that interested any more.)
Leigh talked about the effect that Turner Contemporary has had on Margate, and the amazing rate of change -saying 'It's still cheap in Margate, but you can definitely feel that it isn't going to be like that for long.'
The same week that I was in Margate, I heard from another artist that we, at AirSpace have collaborated with, that he would be moving to Margate imminently, to open a new studio project - it is a story that we are hearing more and  more, as the prices to rent studio in London become completely beyond most artists, the train service to London from Margate, which was greatly improved a few years ago, and now sees you able to be in Kings Cross an hour and a half after setting off, and for just £13 makes the option of living by the sea so much more viable.
This is something that we are really interested in, we don't have the sea in Stoke, but we are one of the U.K.'s greenest cities, the train to Euston takes at best an hour and 23 minutes (unfortunately the price is something that needs work) but with the low cost of living, and London based studio provider Acava opening 43 artists studios a 5 minute walk from Stoke Station, the prospect of being a Stoke based artists looks more interesting than ever.
Crate, as organisation that has been running for 20 years, is very interesting, having been in Margate, before Turner Contemporary, and since. We talked about the way that organisations develop into their buildings in an organic way - and not necessarily in a strategic way which recognises the resources and potential of the building - and that because of this an organisation will need moments of restructuring and rethinking, and that Crate is in a bit of a period of change now, with 2 new directors and an interest in getting back to some of the original emphasis as a research hub.
One of the main questions I had was a direct question around whether Leigh, Nick and Dan could identify what the particular resources might be in Margate, and what impact that might have on the way that artists and art organisations work in Margate.
Leigh felt that Margate, first and foremost has big spaces that are accessible to artists, but also that the place has really interesting pubs and shops - that feel non-commercial and unlike other places, an unspoilt bohemia. He also felt that Turner Contemporary are providing a great support to artists in the Town, and that the networks in Margate work well - people know each other and collaborate across organisations really well. Leigh also described the upsurge in popularity of right wing politics in the area as something which had galvanised the creative community, and brought people together to counter that.
Works in progress, Leigh Clarke.
I was interested in whether the resources of the place, may impact on the themes and ways of working of artists in Margate, Leigh talked about the landscape having an impact and featuring in people's work, but that in many cases it is a slow creeping thing, that happens in people's work, and is almost unnoticed at first. It is of course like this for most artists, whether an artists work is directly related to place or not, places do seep in, and impact on the direction, rhythms, materials and feel of work.
In terms of making work, Leigh talked about how cheap it is to get materials and to get things made, compared to London. He also talked about the Charity Shops as a fantastic resource for him and his work. Leigh turns the abundant wastage of a consumerist society into materials for new works of art, and currently that material is the Celebrity Autobiography.
Works in progress, Leigh Clarke.
'The Charity Shops are my Art Shops, the more I wander around Charity shops, the more I am spotting things that appear a lot at one time. In 2009 I exhibited my collection of 500 Batman Forever VHS videos, that I'd collected for 5 years.
Works photographed in Leigh Clarke's studio, December 2015.
At the moment, these autobiographies are everywhere, because nobody really wants them. I would never have been able to get the stuff I make my art from if I was in London. I just got Anne Diamond for a quid.'
The Petman Building: Resort Studios.
My second visit took me up the hill to Cliftonville, to Resort Studios, and a revisit to Nick Morley at Hello Print. I was in Margate in March for one to one Print training with Nick, write up here
Resort and hello Print are already established as an import part of Margate's arts ecology, providing affordable studio space, open access to the print facilities, and recently a jewelry and soon to open dark room are added to the Resort Menu, which includes drawing club, professional development and a series of interesting events throughout the year.
The new dark rooms, Resort Studios, Margate.
Resort now hosts at least 40 artists, but many more associates, with the print space and events, the energy in the building is positive, productive and friendly - and the space there is obviously already very desirable - there is a selection process at Resort - and they really can attract 'serious' people, as there can be 3 applicants for each studio or desk that becomes available.
There are a number of things which make Resort such an interesting place to work - the physical design and how the building has been broken up, is purposefully thought out to encourage interaction. The 4 directors have very different skill sets, which makes for a well balanced organisation - the pool of skills, contacts and interests across the board keeps things interesting.
We discussed how quickly things are moving in terms of development in Margate - in the six months since my last visit, new galleries have opened on the route from Turner to Resort, and just around the corner on Northdown Road a new clay based open access shop has opened, and is already offering clay workshops.
Nick talked about the pace of change as being the thing which really feeds creativity, but that there is also something (in the background) which is worrying about the speed that things are moving. There is a worry that they are starting to reach a tipping point, that point where Margate becomes cemented as the next big thing - and the gentrification becomes the thing that makes Margate lose its Margateness. It is a responsibility that artists and arts organisations may have, as we know we are part of the process - the thing which is shifting and speeding up the change - and which ultimately means we end up having to move on. We talked about the need for organisations to think forward - to after the gentrification has happened, to do our best to think sustainably - and try to secure the properties we are in ahead of the curve.
This is such a difficult thing for an arts organisation to do though, our experience at AirSpace has been that we did try to secure a longer lease, but that without spare money hanging around, it is really difficult to future proof the precarious artist led organisation.
What is amazing about Crate, is that they own their building, and this really has to be the holy grail, you can't be shifted on, when the prices rocket, if you are the owner of the building.
Nick and I discussed the resources that Margate has to offer - Nick chose Margate in the first place, for its seaside location as he and his partner were looking to get out of London, but also for the large buildings, and importantly for Nick, no other print provision anywhere near the area. Nick talked about the feeling that in Margate, you really can make a bigger impact,
'If you put on a good event here, everyone knows about it, but in London there is so much competition.'
I think it is more than that too, In Stoke, it has felt for the past 10 years like the lack of infrastructure and other activity has perversely made it somehow easier to do things, not so much red tape, and in a way, because you are often doing things for the first time, it does make a bigger splash.
Resort is a young organisation, and therefore at this stage is rightly focused on getting established and getting organised, and not overtly concerned with engaging the public around them, in my experience anyway, this will come later - but the day to day connections with local residents and neighbour businesses will see the slow and steady, and more natural impact that the presence of Resort will have. We talked about the responsibility of the organisation to its neighbourhood, and what that might mean - which for now is about improving the spaces around the building, being welcoming and open, so that the locals don't feel alienated by the changes taking place - and which may, eventually change the area entirely.
 Dan Thompson - site responsive artwork in Arlington House - etched Parquet Floor.
The final visit in Margate cemented the conversations around gentrification, and the artists role and responsibility. It was great to catch up with artist and writer Dan Thompson. Dan has been working and campaigning for many years, around the use of abandoned high street shops - and on his website his about describes him as being
'... interested in the creation of social capital, in abandoned or underused spaces, and in DIY approaches to art, culture and social action. '
As an independent artist, who very consciously moved to Margate with his family a few years back, I was interested to hear from Nick about the phenomena of culture led gentrification in Margate, and the impact that people like him are having on the town.
Though Dan moved to Margate two years ago, he has been working in Margate variously since 2003, so had a real knowledge of the town and the potential there before moving his family, there was the draw of the sea, but also Turner Contemporary being in the town was important.
We talked about the interesting question around resources, and the impact that this can have on the way that artists live and work. In Margate, like Stoke, Dan identified that space is relatively easy to get hold of, and that it is impressive, characterful space, that makes the project so much more interesting and ripe with creativity.
Recent projects have seen Dan working with a group of other artists to put on a site responsive exhibition in Arlington House, one of the most controversial, and impactful buildings on Margate seafront. Getting hold of amazing spaces like this would be difficult anywhere else. This building is an interesting one, I remember from my youth, Arlington House being regarded as something of a ghetto, by those that didn't live there, and in Pawel Pawlikowski's 'Last Resort' film, it was there that the main character ended up, Arlington House, the ends of the earth.
My Gran's friends had a flat there, and said it was the best place they had ever lived, as Dan pointed out, due to the amazing architecture of the building, every flat has a sea view.
In Stoke too, projects like Art City have seen some amazing spaces made available for artists; our colleagues at Re:Stoke put on an epic production in the closed down Tunstall Swimming Baths, AirSpace led on the Kules Residency in the old Olympus Engineering Works, and the project itself launched from the Chatterley Whitfield Colliery. In Stoke, we are in the moment before the moment that Margate is in, amazing spaces are accessible, at little or no cost - but people are starting to notice - 43 artists studios on the Spode Factory this month will bring a much welcomed influx of creative people, but this, like in Margate may be just the start.
Talking to Dan, Nick and Leigh, they all shared this story of a move to Margate being about getting away from the commercialism of London, or towards the amazing character that Margate has, where space can be accessed, things can be done but that there presence itself could be the thing which makes it all flip the other way.
In Dan's case, in the two years that he has been living there he has seen property prices rocket - purchasing a flat in Arlington House was something that could have been achievable two years ago, but its proximity to the train station, sea views, and the influx of other tower block appreciating creative people have pushed the price above and beyond what most artists could hope to afford.
In Margate they are not at the tipping point yet, but everyone seems to feel it coming.
We don't have a Turner Contemporary in Stoke, or the sea for that matter, and at the moment it feels like a bit of that gentrification might not go amiss - but there are rumblings here that its on its way.
The city is bidding for city of culture 2021, good places to eat have suddenly begun to appear, and the positive press we are getting is really making a difference to how we are viewed from elsewhere.
What it feels we could do with is one big catalyst to really bring it all together, a Whole City Art Project - Maybe bidding for City of Culture could be it?- and it does feel that that needs to be artist led.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Stoke-on-Trent: A City on The Up

Since I returned to the City in 2005, the city of Stoke-on-Trent; my home, has changed immeasurably. Like many artists, the place I live leaks into, influences and is often the subject of my practice and research. The change happening in Stoke over the years has been frighteningly fast paced: both in terms of the deindustrialisation and demolition which seemed to be everywhere around the time that I curated 'Indefinable City' at AirSpace Gallery in 2007 and in the last couple of years in the pace of development, in terms of housing and business investment.
Much of the change has been a result of top down decision making (good and bad) in relation to the housing renewal, and clearance, and the various initiatives and projects to regenerate which have been variously successful.
What is particularly interesting is the growth in the creative industries - and in particular the power and the growth of artist led activity in the city.
Within my practice as an artist, and research as an academic, I have been interested in the role of artists in regenerating the places they live and work since the Indefinable City exhibition of 2007 - and have spoken about, and lead projects which explore this since then; so I was delighted to be invited as a speaker for a panel discussion at the V and A, on 30th October - during their monthly 'Friday Late' event which was exploring the theme 'The Potteries'.
 Image Copyright to V and A Official Photographer
The panel discussion was exploring 'The Future of The Potteries' and was chaired by the V and A's ceramics curator Olivia Horsfall Turner, and joining me on the panel was Steven Moore (Director at Middleport Pottery, and one of the experts on the Antiques Roadshow) as well as  David Proudlove from Urban Vision (also a writer for The Sentinel.)
Thinking about the discussion on the way down to London, what I really wanted to do was to present Stoke as the city which I know; one with its own share of problems, but a city with so much potential - so much going for it. In many ways, as an artist living in the city these past 10 years, I have benefited from the particular context here - there are so many gaps - and as artists, what we are really good at, is recognising gaps and seeing them as opportunities to make things happen. The things that I have been able to do, in terms of curating, and making projects happen, just would not have been possible in any other city. Over these ten years I have seen Stoke-on-Trent talked about from within the city, but also in National Press as a failing place, somewhere that no one wants to be, the city featured regularly in 'worst place to live,' and 'unhappiest city' polls. In the past 2 or 3 years however, the way the city is described, and the types of polls we are now featuring in have shifted dramatically. Suddenly we are featuring in 'Best Cities to raise a family' polls or 'Fastest Growth' polls. In addition, there are many more positive news stories coming out of the city than ever before. The Panel Discussion then, felt like the perfect time to really begin to spread the positive word about the city - and I was very happy to be part of that.
 Image Copyright to V and A Official Photographer
It was very interesting to talk about the role that art and arts organisations are having in the city, but also to talk about the role of the University - in celebrating the City's Ceramic Heritage.
At the end of the talk a number of people stayed behind to let us know how refreshing and heartening it was to hear such positive news from the city. I really feel, along with many others, that this is an important moment for Stoke.
We all felt that in the next 5 years there will be a lot of development in the city - and that the future for the city is really looking good. Since the discussion, the official announcement has been made that Stoke is to bid to be City of Culture 2021. This would probably have been unimaginable 5 years ago - I look forward to looking back in 5 years time and seeing how much further we have come.
Dave Proudlove wrote up his take on the discussions here:

Friday, January 8, 2016

Spode Rose: Landscapes, Designs and Thoughts from the Public

The results of the Spode Rose Garden Consultation are in, the Council report being amazed by the response, mentioning that there were more respondents for this questionnaire, than when they consulted on the poll tax.
The level of interest is testament to how well loved this space and the factory are within the hearts of the public - what is also really heartening, is to see the number of people who have expressed an interest in being involved with the garden in the future - and perhaps potentially forming a 'Friends of' group for the space.
This is really key to the sustainability and long term plan for the space - The council have committed to spend £12,000 on the garden, all of which will go on landscape plans, landscaping, treeworks, restoration and plants. It is imperative that this investment is not wasted - and therefore finding custodians for the space long term is a real concern for us, as we don't want the work to be done, only for the garden to return to its previous abandoned state.
For us at AirSpace then the idea of a programme of engagement and public art works seems a great way to involve people (so it is this part of the project that we will have to look for investment for.)
What is really clear from the questionnaire is how important the heritage of the garden is to people, with many mentioning that the garden should nod to and incorporate Spode designs and history - something which myself and Dawn Mayer (the council's Landscape Architect that we are working with on the project) are keen to explore this further.
There are a number of key elements that we hope to include in the Spode Rose Garden's future design, but we also hope to retain as much of the current layout and features as possible.
Conversations based on the questionnaire and our own thoughts about the space centre around the following principles currently, which we will be taking now back to those interested stakeholders for cross checking:
- The garden's history as a rose garden is something we hope to build on, showcasing the new Spode China Rose which has been the central motif within the project.
- From the questionnaire and subsequent design conversations, we are looking at a design which includes and references Key Spode Patterns: ensuring that the garden references the Factory's rich heritage, but is also able to be a learning resource about the history of Spode.
- Spending some time looking at the current layout of the garden, we hope to accentuate the series of circles/semi-circles around the space, seeing these as templates for referencing the Spode Wares (A series of plates in the space - delineated with landscaping features, and referencing the plants and fruits from Spode wares via planting schemes and other features.)
- Tree works are a priority in the garden - as some of the trees have a lot of dead wood and others are damaging neighbouring buildings.
- A number of people have mentioned the railings - and needing these to be done up - this would take quite a large part of the council's £12,000 budget, but would be something that would be really beneficial for the future of the space.
- One key individual who has a real interest in the Spode Site and has done a lot of work in keeping much of the rest of the factory site looking presentable with plants and flowers over the years, discussed the idea of a second gate into the garden, which would create a sense of being able to walk through the garden (a nice idea) and which Dawn will look into for costs.
- The council has a commitment to including edible elements within all green space development, as part of their Sustainable Food City Initiative - something which we are also really on board with at AirSpace, and in addition to this a number of respondents to the questionnaire mentioned edible planting as being desirable. This offers a real opportunity for the design of the space to reference two key artistic movements which are going on in the City (and beyond) at the moment, which have seen two key themes emerge in how artists and art organisations are working: projects and works which use food and growing as core interests.
The Spode Rose Garden thematically then, can talk about the growing and sharing of food - through the design and planting schemes, we create a space where it is possible to pick and eat your lunch, and the space itself references the ceramic wares we are all familiar with eating from.
The next stage for the project is to hold a meeting, where we invite interested individuals to hear about the project, and to talk about how we move forward as a group in ensuring the future sustainability of the garden, as well as inviting people to input into the design stage, by suggesting which of the Spode Wares they would like to see referenced in the garden.
We hope to do this in early February.

For now, some interesting statistics and date from the Questionnaire:
out of 108 respondents answering the question 'Should the Garden be Improved?' Two were unsure, only one said No, and the reasons were to do with worrying about the work being vandalised afterwards. (That means that 97% said Yes the garden should be improved.)
When asked 'what do you like about the garden?' 13% of respondents said 'not much'.
10% mentioned the willow tree and 12% said they liked the links to Ceramics and the use of ceramics within the garden - and this is backed up with many more people expressing the need for the design to reference ceramics. It was interesting that a number of people felt that the feeling of privacy/secret garden aspect was really positive, something that I hope we can build on.
In giving their ideas a number of key themes are emerging which are informing the direction for the design:
9 people mentioned artworks and sculpture.
21 people (19%) mentioned seating.
5 people talked about edible plants as an idea.
11 mentioned a water feature.
11 said that the planting should support wildlife and birds.
9 said that the ceramic heritage should be referenced within the design and a couple of people thought that a second entrance would create a walk through, and a handful more thought that a sheltered area would be good, so that the garden can be used in all weathers.
In relation to the planting schemes within the space:
44 people talked about the planting considering wildlife, and being bee and bird friendly, with another 6 people talking about planting considering using native wildflowers within the garden.
22 people mentioned scented plants, with a further 6 suggesting a sensory garden.
16 people mentioned that edible planting could be incorporated, but 3 people said No edible planting.
A few people mentioned the idea that the planting could reference Spode in some way, and a few more said they would like to see more roses in the garden.
27 people talked about the planting including some evergreen, but also that interest throughout the year should be considered - this is in keeping with providing a space for pollinators and birds (as we found with the Bee Friendly Garden) as there is a real need to provide year round support for our birds and bees - so this is something I would be really keen to look at.
4 very sensible people mentioned that the planting should be low maintenance.
In terms of maintaining the garden long term, many people talked about volunteers (44) and that to set up a Friends of Group would be a good way forward (7) something we are now looking into, but a lot of people thought that the council should maintain - which unfortunately is not likely to happen, hence the need for engagement from the community.
Of the 108 people that filled in the questionnaire 17 people said they would like to volunteer to help with the garden in future - which is brilliant.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Wayward walks for the British Ceramics Biennial

I was commissioned by the British Ceramics Biennial to deliver a series of Wayward Walks for visitors to the Spode Factory during the Biennial. My recent work has involved explorations of city sites via the Victorian Language of Flowers, and last year I was commissioned by the Saturday Market Project to create a lovely Urban Exploration Guide, something which I greatly enjoyed. To launch the guide SMP commissioned me to do an urban exploration walk around Shoreditch during the London Design Festival - it was a mixture of things really on the walk - a sort of walking workshop, with some poetry writing, urban exploration and plant identification.
 I was also asked this year to develop a workshop for the Arnolfini's Floating Ballast Seed Garden (above and below)- an amazing floating garden project.
 The garden is planted up with seeds excavated from Bristol Harbour that had been dumped from Ship Ballast around the time that England was a great shipping nation, visiting and trading with countries all over the world, and as a result, inadvertently bringing in wayward plants from all over the world via the ships ballast.
I developed a workshop to think about the plants on the boat, and creating a special Ballast Seed Garden language with participants. This is exactly the sort of work I hope to continue to do, engaging with amazing gardens and finding ways for other people to think differently about the plants in cities, so I was thrilled to be asked to work on this fantastic project.
For the BCB Wayward Walks, the idea was for visitors to gain an insight into the history and architecture of this amazing heritage site - and then to do something practical with clay.
The Spode factory has such a rich history, it was difficult to decide what to focus the walk on, but one thing which is really fascinating is the role that Spode played in the development of printing onto clay - so this became my focus.
My walk involved taking participants around the site, as it is today - with many buildings not currently in use - there are a lot of weeds growing around the site, so my stopping points on the route drew attention to these weeds - encouraging the walkers to see the beauty in them.
At each plant I would introduce historical information about the factory, or the development of particular printing techniques, for example bat printing, which was an 'over-glaze' printing method - and not very hard wearing - but more groundbreaking was the development (by Josiah Spode) of underglaze printing methods, like pluck and dust or the tissue printing techniques still used today at Middleport Pottery.
I would then introduce Spode floral design from wares using the techniques - as a way to showcase some of the beautiful patterns developed at the Spode Factory.
During the tour participants would collect plants found growing on the Spode Site, (above- fern growing in the remains of a bottle oven) and the last stop on the tour, we would discuss the site as it is today - discussing this wonderful moment we are in on the site - as if the site is holding its breath - the pause between the out and the in breath.
The factory closed in 2008 - but with the announcement of 1.7 million to be spent on the site, turning Spode back into a creative village once more - those plants growing on the site will probably be dislodged before long.
We then returned to the Spode China Hall, one of the largest buildings in the factory, once a thriving factory floor, and now the main event in the BCB showcase. This year the BCB has an extra feature - The Hub, where a series of workshops and activities have been programmed, with the strapline 'Get Clay Under Your Fingernails' where there are plenty of opportunities to learn new techniques and processes.
I revisited the idea of the blue and white floral designs we had been considering, and talked about creating a new Spode ware for the day - which celebrates this pause moment and looks ahead to Spode's creative future.
Using Studio White Clay - which fires to a wonderful bright white Participants then used their collected weeds to press into the clay, and then added detail with Cobalt Oxide (which adds the fantastic Spode Blue colour).
Then we talked a little bit about the Victorian Language of Flowers, and assigning meaning to plants found on the site.
Over the different sessions people seemed to really enjoy the combination of walking, history of the site, and making.
The workshop really appealed to all ages, from 3 upwards!
There were so many beautiful tiles made - each one different and each one really successful. The brilliant thing about the workshop is that everyone can make something that they are pleased with.
At the end of the sessions (which typically lasted about an hour and a half) people left feedback about how they found the activity.
I was pleased to read how much everyone had enjoyed it, as I am really keen to do more with this format.
I am really interested in developing the idea of works which explore site specific weeds and plants in cities. I hope to continue with tours and workshops like this in 2016, perhaps looking for an opportunity to develop the format within a project which explores the history and future of sites through the weeds and plants growing there - leading to a permanent artwork of some kind, an intervention or a publication.

Monday, October 19, 2015

REVIEW: Dangerous Discoveries at Biddulph Grange

Standing on the edge of the lake in the formal Italian section of the garden, admiring the giant koi as they cut through the water before disappearing back into the murky depths, an English afternoon is suddenly interrupted by song, floating across the water from elsewhere; it is Rebecca Lee's Song Sung When. At first listening the song sounds faintly familiar, a folk song misremembered? But as I move towards the sound the words reveal themselves to be something other than English, the effect of this and the other sound works in the collection, create a jolt - a rupture in the fabric of the day, throwing the listener into some other time and place, which feels ancient, other-worldly and at odds with the Englishness of a  day out with the National Trust. 
The sound works presented here are selected field recordings from Nepal, Morocco, USA and Italy, and are presented alongside plants originating from these places, perhaps creating in the listener a similar sense of the exotic as would have been felt by those avid plant hunters, the Victorians - when setting out their collections of plants from all over the world, amidst the ordinariness of the English country garden.
This is James Bateman's glorious Biddulph Grange; the design of the garden suggests a series of outdoor rooms or small countries, the effect of which is to make the site seem bigger than its 17 acres. The garden was designed in the period somewhere between Capability Brown's large scale landscapes and the high Victorian period of garden design, which sought to accommodate the new craze for plant collecting from around the world. Bateman and his wife were avid plant collectors, and with the help of artist friend Edward William Cooke, the Biddulph Grange gardens were designed with their collection in mind.
A walk through reveals a series of pocket gardens, each reflecting the styles and landscaping features of other, far-away places - and indeed accommodating their plants too; conjuring ideas of the grand tour in miniature, where not just plants but architectural follies surprise the explorer (visitor). The idea of a Chinese Pagoda, over the hedge from an Egyptian Pyramid flanked by Sphinxes seems incongruous, and has something of the theme park about it, but it works here, since it is a theme park to nature. The excitement and thrill expressed through the design itself, may not be immediately obvious in today's garden, but Bateman's  passion is revealed through the artworks in Dangerous Discoveries, which seek to make visible the hidden and forgotten world of the plant hunter. In addition, the works draw our attention towards the understanding that comes with hindsight around the unchecked introduction of thousands of foreign species into the English Countryside, which the Victorians, men like Bateman, were responsible for. This obsessive importing of species grows ever more concerning, in particular in relation to some of the plants that are now known as invasive species by bodies like the Royal Horticultural Society, who describe these fast growing non-native species as problematic in the way that they:
"- Outcompete native species either by habitat change or by spreading so rapidly as to crowd out slower growing species, threatening the long-term survival of species.
-Take a long time to become invasive. Many of the plants now considered invasive have been growing in the UK for over 100 years and for much of that time showed no sign of becoming a problem."
[i]Royal Horticultural Society (2015) Invasive Non-Native Species. Available: https://www.rhs.org.uk/advice/profile?PID=530. Last accessed 6th October 2015.

A number of the artworks in the show deal directly with plants and Laura Youngson Coll's exquisite orchid works seem to most closely reflect the shows title. The dangers of orchid collecting and hunting are well documented and these works refer directly to James Bateman's horticultural credentials as a leading authority on tropical orchids, as set out in his book of 1843 Orchids of Mexico and Guatemala[ii]. The book reveals in some detail the little care for the terrible destruction of natural habitats across the world which was the result of the Victorian's plant obsession; native species decimated in their homelands for the sake of the Victorian's thirst for the strangest, rarest and most exotic of species. These intricate and beautiful artworks, through their display, look at first like simple botanical specimens; but on closer inspection reveal themselves to be something all together stranger. Made of vellum and hair sheep leather on top of an armature, the plants are beautiful but deadly looking objects of immaculate skill. In Grotesques Creatures, in particular, the artist has taken the already otherworldly orchid and created something akin to a plant and insect hybrid, a flowering of parasitic insects suggest a genetic modification turned mutant. Two of the artworks are found within the Shelter House, a grand architectural turret, overlooking the Dahlia Walk; a feature that was lost in history (during the Grange's time as a hospital) but reinstated in recent years. The siting of the works here seem to bring the viewer a moment of pause - as the building brings the journey around the garden to a momentary stop - a chance to look back at where you have been. The final work in the series is hidden within the tunnels which lead to the Chinese Garden, the effect is to create a feeling in the viewer of something secret and precious, perhaps contraband. These are some of the works in the show that respond to the unique character of the garden, which is as much about hidden passages, routes and inside spaces, as an experience of the great outdoors.
In Sarah Tulloch's Parallel Nature one such interior space is utilised, and the feeling of being moved from one place and time to another, which seems to recur as you move throughout the garden is extended by the invitation to stop for a moment in between Egypt and somewhere else. The video piece consists of a series of montages, which explore aspects of the garden in minute detail. The collection of images, sounds and photographs document the work which continues in the garden today and at times reveals the hidden world of micro-biology. This work takes the viewer from swamp land, to woodland glade and through to formal manicured landscape, perhaps reflecting the evolution of life in the garden. The experience of standing and watching the projected works in the tunnel close to Egypt gives a nod towards those awe inspiring scientists, the Ancient Egyptians. With this work the garden is experienced on an entirely different level, as a living, breathing ecosystem of organisms, the piece too, seems to place the gardener at the centre of this sensitive ecology, working hard to maintain the precarious balance.
If Tulloch's piece requires the viewer to focus in, and uncovers the hidden and invisible micro world, the works of Katie and Rebecca Beinart highlight the physical architecture, responding to the gardens platforms and levels. At times the viewer is invited to move around to unexpected aspects, creating the feeling of experiencing the landscape almost from above. The four sculptures reference the Wardian Cases which were developed by Nathaniel Ward in 1830, which for the first time developed a way for plants to be transported across the world, surviving long sea crossings. [iii] That some of the sites for the sculptures are at odds with the preferred habitats of the plants housed within, directly responds to the difficulty of transporting plants to and from other places. In particular the case containing Hart's tongue ferns, found on the grassed area by the geological gallery in full sun, has resulted in some quite sickly looking plants. It is well documented that Bateman himself was often frustrated by some species inability to adapt to the English climate, and no level of horticultural skill will coax a plant to survive and thrive in an unsuitable habitat.

The materials which the pieces are constructed from reference the key industries of North Staffordshire, steel and ceramic; and perhaps nod to the development of the gardens from the Bateman's family money, made within the local coal and steel industry. The suggested geographies within the works request that the viewer stand back from the garden and provide a macro view of its design; suddenly an overview is achieved, as the viewer is placed in a position of omnipotent onlooker. The pieces shift the scale of the garden once more, and we are reminded that everything here is not natural, but designed.
The experience of moving around Biddulph Grange gardens creates an immersive feeling of being somewhere else, the walker can feel lost in the labyrinthine tunnels, walkways and interlocking rooms, the Beinart Sculptures, however, jolt the viewer back to the reality of constructed landscape, by providing the privileged view of the architect.
The artists in Dangerous Discoveries have responded to, excavated and revealed a fantastic jewel of a garden on many different levels. The Trust New Art series, which this exhibition is a part of,  is bringing a new arts audience to gardens and properties like this, but in addition, the artists are enabling new views of familiar places for frequent visitors, and uncovering new ways of uncovering the hidden histories within our heritage.
Dangerous Discoveries continues at Biddulph Grange until 31st October, 2015.

[i] Royal Horticultural Society (2015) Invasive Non-Native Species. Available: https://www.rhs.org.uk/advice/profile?PID=530. Last accessed 6th October 2015.
[ii] James Bateman (1843). 'Orchids of Mexico and Guatemala. London
[iii] National Trust (2015). Dangerous Discoveries. Staffordshire: Trust New Art.