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.