Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Greatest Show of '86

I started researching the National Garden Festival of 1986 back in 2009. As Stoke-on-Trent's biggest ever cultural regeneration project, the NGF was an example of many of the things I have been interested in and researching for the past 5 years or more. It looks at land reclamation in post-industrial cities, urban/landscape design, impact of culture and arts on regeneration, heritage, legacy etc. The fascination in many ways comes from the fact that this is a hidden and secret space in the middle of an urban conurbation.
The name of the retail park, Festival Park, may hint at the project which saw the reclamation of 165 acres of polluted, mineshafted land - but most of the shoppers who visit never venture into the now fairly mature parkland, which is a permanent gift to the city and a legacy of the Garden Festival. The site had been Wedgwood's Etruria Factory, and then Shelton Bar Steelworks. The land was in a terrible state, and many environmentalists say that the NGF team could not possibly have cured the land of its problems in such a short space of time. The hills and ravines were molded from tonnes and tonnes of slag - but despite this, the 26 year old trees and shrubs seem incredibly healthy.
My project has involved conversations, tours, collecting remnants and images and building an understanding of this fantastic project, which is not celebrated enough.
I had been taking small groups of artists on tours of the sites with maps, and as a result Rednile asked me to lead a tour for a group of 20 artists as one of their factory nights. For this tour I focused on trying to show the sites of a number of the sculpture trail artworks from the festival. Only a few of the pieces remain on site now, some have been dispersed around the city, while others have vanished. The idea was to inspire the artists on the tour to send in proposals to Rednile for a series of commissions, which would hopefully raise the profile of the Festival Site, and Rednile and I selected 3 of the proposals to go ahead.
Little Earthquake's Phil put forward the idea of intimate tours which would locate some of the artworks from the festival in the city, but also bring people from the city up onto the site.
Ruthie Ford was inspired by my collection of Woman's Weekly magazines, as they had commissioned a Cottage Garden at the Festival in '86.
Ruthie carried out a workshop in AirSpace Gallery resource room with the public, making crocheted flowers, and talking to people about the Woman's weekly planting scheme, and their memories of the Festival.
Ruthie also made some fantastic giant flowers, a delphinium, a hollyhock and a foxglove - all flowers from the Woman's Weekly garden - which were planted on the hill up to the Festival Site, which could be clearly seen from the retail park. The idea here was that people shopping might look up and notice the amazing parkland - and be intrigued to come and explore.
The final commission was David Bethell's 'Against All the Odds.' A durational performance lasting a day and a night, which was inspired by the changing use of the site. From factory, to steelworks, to leisure space, and now to office and retail space. In particular, David was interested that one of Stoke's largest growing employers Bet365 employees often visit the site in lunch breaks - finding a welcome escape from the office environment. David set up an office at the original compass point - the site of Richard Wilson's lighthouse 'Stoke Lightening Stack.' A sculpture made of scrap car headlamps, originally intended as a permanent piece, and one of the artworks that we cannot find out much about. The performance saw Dave setting up an office space, and working at his desk, then as night fell the office was dismantled and turned into a lighthouse, and then a life raft, and then back to an office again, ready for morning.
Originally, the organisers of NGF '86 put forward the idea that the park would become a Sculpture Park. This would have been a fantastic asset for the city, especially with the names of the important artists that had works on the site: Antony Gormley, Richard Wilson, Cornelia Parker to name just a few. My tours and the Factory Night commissions have raised the sites profile, and I hope more people will visit the site as a result. One of the fantastic outputs of the Factory Night project is the map which Andrew Branscombe kindly made for the project. This new map shows the site as it is today, and locates where many of the park's amazing features were, and some still are. This map can be found here. My final tour of the Garden festival site took place last weekend, and coincided with David Bethell's performance.
I linked up with the Closer to Homes walkers, who walk the site every weekend, so the final tour took around 20 walkers, using our new map, and visiting all of the sites of interest. A big thank you to Rednile for commissioning the series of tours and artworks that have reactivated the festival site, and brought colour, sculpture and fun back to this wonderful city asset.
Looking today at Ray Johnson's film of the NGF I realise something about my feelings about the site, since the first walk I took up there, getting lost with the 1986 map, - what I really want, while watching the footage, is to be able to go back in time and see it all for myself. I want to walk through the brand new landscaping, and figure out exactly where everything is. I feel frustrated by the short clips which do not linger long enough for me to locate the features geographically with the site I know so well. I will continue to visit the site, but I think that for now, my research is done.

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