Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Portland Inn Project

Community Maker and The Oasis Social Club merged during August and Early September 2016, to become The Portland Inn Project. We kept an almost daily blog here. The fantastic artist Rebecca Davies and I were lead artists on the 4 week project which involved delivering daily activity, which ranged from Bingo, to dance and movement, to tae kwondo, through to a range of creative arts workshops.
The idea was to test what the community enjoyed, what people attended, and what times of day and week would work the best.
We worked with project partners My Community Matters, the Portland Street Community Group, Appetite, The British Ceramics Biennial and AirSpace Gallery to make sure that almost every day had activity, and on a number of days, a number of things would take place throughout the day. The project was funded by the City Council and Appetite Community Events Fund, The Portland Street Community Group and Arts Council England.
There were a few dance and movement classes with choreographer Sarah Blanc.
And Tuesday nights throughout the programme were an opportunity for young people in the area to take part in free martial arts workshops - with little ninjas for under 6's and then tae kwondo for the slightly older ones. These were really popular, and showed a real need for this kind of activity, and a base for it to happen in the area. These sessions, as well as some social media surgeries, and library sessions were organised by our partners in the project My Community Matters - who have been working in the area for a long time, and really feel the need for a project like this to have a permanent base in the area.
Appetite also supported the project with lots of advice, and practical support, in the form of furniture for the pub, but also in the organisation of what turned out to be our most successful day. The Appetite Taster Tour came to Portland Street, with the wonderful installation of interactive bee hives, by theatre company Artizani, plus a fabulous series of performance dances 'Topiary Trauma' by Kitsch-n-Sync.
Which together, provided probably the oddest spectacle that the area has ever seen, and felt like an important moment for the community, to imagine together, a future without limits.

The sessions which Rebecca and I organised were designed quite pragmatically to be productive, in relation to improving the space. While wonderful to have access to the Portland Inn, there was no getting away from the fact that it is really a derelict pub, with all the problems that come with that, so throughout the 4 weeks, our mission was also to involve people in transforming the space, and imagining together what it could be.

So, for example: Rebecca's surface decoration workshop created patterns and wall decoration for the pub.
The signwriting workshop, showed everyone the basics of putting together a series of wonderful signs, and a number of brilliant and useful signs were made for the space.
Even one for the Portland Inn Loo.

Sunday morning gardening club also provided an opportunity to spruce up the outside of the pub, with a hanging basket workshop.
The sessions varied in terms of who attended, there were some people that came just once for something specific, some that came to nearly everything, some that popped in often but didn't join in, and others that took a while to get involved, but by the end, were a part of the team.
Throughout the 4 weeks the British Ceramics Biennial team were on hand to run a creative evaluation with clay - after each session, (developed by Ceramic Artists Jo Ayre and Alice Thatcher) the community would be invited to put their thoughts about the session, and the project onto a clay tile, using imagery to represent their thoughts, and providing notes to give the context. There was a colour code which the participant selected based on how they were feeling.
The idea of this is that these tiles will, we hope, become a new tiled frontage for the pub building, based on the wonderful highly glossed majolica pub frontages of the past. Below are the coloured glaze tests.
The Community Maker workshops which I ran over the weeks followed on from last years meet, eat and make with clay ethos, but where last year we experimented with a lot of imagery creation methods, this year's focus was around the idea of using imagery from last year, but thinking now about making prototypes for the Portland Ware plates, which are the basis for the project. 

The first set of sessions were designed around the 'bring a plate' tradition of the community in the area, who have learned to be self-sufficient, and resourceful, making something from nothing. Community events have often been a 'bring a plate' event, where each community brings something on a plate to share, and the result is a community meal.

This time, neighbours were encouraged to bring a plate from home, and on arrival would be given a slice of cake to eat off their plate, we would then cast the plate to make a mould.
The next set of workshops used the moulds we had made previously to create a new set of plates, and then a printing workshop, used mono printing techniques (the old tissue paper method developed by Josiah Spode, for underglaze printing) to print last years imagery onto our newly made plates.
The idea for Community Maker this year has been about creating the prototype ware, which my absolute dream for, would be to find an industry partner, who would support the making of the ware, so that not only could each community member have the special ware in their cupboard, so that future 'Bring A Plate' events would see the special Portland Wares coming out of the cupboard to form a community gathering, and becoming an emblem for a resourceful community, but that potentially, if we can look at manufacturing the ware, and selling it, any profit could be ploughed back into the community, helping the community and the Portland Inn Project to become sustainable.
Therefore the aim for this year has been to create a prototype to be exhibited at BCB17, that is exciting, and beautiful enough to potentially interest industry partners, but which importantly has the ability to tell the community's story. 
This is where the idea of talking ceramics comes in. Alongside the Portland Inn Project, I have been undertaking the Random String Fellowship, offered by Ludic Rooms in Coventry.
This has involved some digital arts training and mentoring, to look at how a digital strand might support and develop my practice into new directions. I have been lucky to be allocated Ben Sadler from Juneau Projects as my mentor, which has been really rewarding.
The thought was that if we could make it, so that when visitors to the BCB touched the Portland Ware, they would hear the voices of the community, they would get a real sense of the way that a creative art project is supporting a community to develop. 
It has been fascinating experimenting with the Arduino technology - Jo Ayre and I had a good time playing with the tech and ceramic materials.
We tried getting clay to talk:
The way the bare condictive arduino board works, is that if you connect conductive materials to it (via the gold pins) each pin can have a different sound loaded onto it, so if the clay were able to conduct, in theory, touching the wet clay, the circuit would be complete and the sound would play. 
What I have learned since our experiment, is that the water content in the clay is too low to trigger the sound at the default settings, but it is not too difficult to reprogramme the arduino to be more sensitive.

So we tried clay slip, which again didn't work - but would work if we reprogrammed. But one thing that worked really well, was using a ceramic piece with gold banding.
The gold banding conducts beautifully - if it is a complete circuit. So the plan now is to add gold banding (circuity) to the Portland Ware Prototype, which will be displayed at the BCB. The set will be laid out like a community meal, but the tech will be hidden, so that the arduino etc is underneath, and we will develop a way that the ware does not need wire attached, via the gold banding, but when the wares are in place on the table, the voices of the community will be triggered when the wares are touched.
I am very excited about this next stage.
Throughout the 4 weeks, alongside the creative and other sessions, we were asking a series of questions, all of which would inform the development of the project, and provide the evidence we would need for writing a business plan. We even offered a business development session, which helped to shape our thinking around the contents of a business plan.
The way that the community responded to the creative sessions, but importantly, how keen people were to be involved in making the place better has informed the direction the project is now taking.
The findings from the 4 weeks demonstrated the need for a space in the area, providing opportunities for the community to meet and make together with over 600 attendees at events, but alongside that, there is a real need for the project to be financially sustainable. The findings from the 4 weeks, and subsequent research have led to the conclusion that the Portland Inn Development Project could see the Pub Building divided into 3 different uses.
Upstairs could include a residential flat, which potentially could be where the building manager lives. In addition there could be a smaller, one room residency space for visiting artists to stay in.
Downstairs the space would be split roughly in half, with a carpeted community room, which is available for community events, training and activity. This space can be booked, and hired out, but should always remain a community space.
The other half of the downstairs would be home to a community led enterprise, a workshop that has the ability to work on the creation of wares for sale (initially the Community Maker Ware, but with a view to diversify the range.) The facilities within the space would allow the space to be flexible in its offer, but we envision that alongside the making of the ceramic wares, the space can work on research and development of projects, provide bookable space for ceramicists and kiln access, be a base for artists residencies,  and provide a space to explore the role of the artist within design processes.

In addition, the space would be able to provide training, apprenticeships and volunteering opportunities for the community, as well as offering short courses for adult and family learning.
This is where we have got to currently, as we put the business plan together - which needs to be delivered to the council mid-November.

The final event during the Portland Inn Development Project was a community celebration day, it poured with rain, which scuppered plans to spread out onto the green space. Over the day I ran a clay cake making workshop with Jo Ayre, to create ceramic cakes which can hopefully be displayed with the Portland Ware.
Penny Vincent ran a singing workshop, there was a work-it workers workout with Choreographer Sarah Blanc, the library van man came back and read us a lovely childrens story and lots more happened throughout the day - not to forget local resident Chloe, who had always wanted to do some facepainting, sho made sure we all looked great. Finally, there was a community photo shoot, where people had their photo taken acting out what they wanted to see for the pub's future. 
The photos will be going up on the hoarnings of the pub, as a holding space, until we get back in there, but for now - here is a video of the Celebration Event.

The project has continued to raise questions about the role of art and artists in society, and for me personally, allowing me to explore what it means to work where you live, and not have the separation, and ability to be a 'stranger artist'. This all requires much more thought, but I am really interested in what happens if artists are in it for the long haul, and if projects take a longer term approach, than many funding streams allow.
This I will return to later.

There are too many people to thank individually for being part of the amazing team that put this together - all I can say is - thank you all so much. and in Rebecca's words: Forward Together.