Thursday, January 16, 2014

Birder's Paradise: Appetite Commission

Andrew Branscombe and I have embarked upon a new commission. We are thrilled that the ideas we had to develop a project called Birder's Paradise (see previous blog for details of history) has been commissioned by Appetite (part of the Arts Council's Creative, People and Places programme to bring arts to areas where there is less uptake in arts and culture) which sees 3 million in arts funding coming to the city of Stoke-on-Trent, specifically to build audiences in the area. Our commission comes from The Kitchen section of the Appetite programme, supporting artists in the area to research and develop ideas, and providing seed funding for projects.
We sent in an expression of interest to Appetite, as we felt their remit, to create an appetite for the arts in Stoke, through a variety of commissions could fit really well with our ideas for Birder's Paradise, which would bring arts to the public via conversations about Birds and Wildlife to be found locally.
Here is the proposal that we sent in.

Birder's Paradise: Stoke-on-Trent.
A Birder is different from a Twitcher. While Twitchers will travel miles to see an exotic or rare bird type, Birders are much more interested in spending time with the wildlife and creatures that surround them in their daily lives. This is something that we, as artists, feel an affinity with, in relation to Stoke-on-Trent. To give an idea of our possible approach to involvement in the Appetite Programme we propose to create a mobile research lab 'Birder's Paradise' a mobile bird hide, which can travel to open spaces around Stoke-on-Trent and North Staffordshire, to gather data, identify species and deliver activities and events which create a dialogue with residents and users of the sites about wildlife in their local vicinity. The conversations around wildlife are meant as a 'way-in' to talking to the people of the area about where they live, and what makes it special. Unlike some of the other Appetite projects, the appetites we will be discussing will be of the avian variety – and we will be able to talk to people about urban birdlife, what they eat, and how they can be supported.
The content gathered from those conversations will lead to developments within the project and inform the direction of our response. We know, from personal experience, that taking an interest in green spaces and the wildlife there can improve health and wellbeing, and hope to talk to the public in Stoke-on-Trent about how they experience their local environment, and what other ways they may like to engage with it.
Andrew Branscombe: Ingrained 2010
We are Andrew Branscombe and Anna Francis (AirSpace Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent.) In terms of previous relevant experience: we have plenty of experience of managing projects which engage the public, and which lead to developments, we welcome the opportunity to tell you about some of these projects in a meeting. Also, we have recently developed a small Yarden Space at the back of our artist-led gallery into a Bird Haven, where planting and landscaping is all planned to support the diversity of birds and other wildlife in the city centre, which can act as a catalyst and learning space to encourage others to consider our feathered friends in the planning and use of urban spaces. The project was complete in April, 2013 - and we would love to embark on a venture around the area, where we can take our knowledge from the Bird Yarden on the road, and visit other areas of the city, to talk to people about what it is like to live there and the diversity of wildlife in those areas. As practitioners we have an interest in how artists can have an impact on the environment, and urban development.
Anna Francis, Brownfiled Ikebana 2012
A recent project 'Brownfield Ikebana' shows the type of approach we would take to public workshops on the sites where the Birder's Paradise Hide could visit. In 'Brownfield Ikebana,' Anna used traditional Japanese flower arranging techniques as a starting point for workshops and performances, bringing participants to a local Brownfield site. The workshop saw participants using and identifying 'weeds' and litter to create beautiful flower arrangements, but more importantly to discuss these interim sites and their uses and importance.

The Birder's Paradise project would involve a number of stages, some of the content of which is unknown as yet - as our usual working methodology allows space for participants and site to impact on direction, and activity, but to give an idea:

1. Construct the mobile bird hide: The mobile bird hide would be a converted caravan, camouflaged to blend in to Green and Urban Open Spaces, but also referencing traditional bird hides. The bird hide would act as a temporary work space and hub for working on various sites in the area.
2. Research and development stage: This would see the artists making connections in the various locations, meeting stake holders and identifying key people to involve in the project. We would identify specific locations and then visit these areas to undertake research; looking at uses, users and preliminary identification of wildlife types, and planning our next stage/response. 
3. Intensive Discovery Period: We would endeavour to spend time on the sites, holding workshops, collecting data, making art works. These will be planned and designed in relation to the people and sites identified in the research and development stage, and would centre around what it is like to live and work in the areas, and what can be done to involve people more in the arts in these areas. 
4. Presentation: we will allow the process to determine what our final product is, but for example it may be works for an exhibition; venue to be found during residency, or a mobile exhibition in 'The Mobile Bird Hide' returning to the areas previously visited, and presenting a vision of Green Stoke.

We hope that Birder's Paradise will demonstrate that developing an appreciation and knowledge of wildlife and nature is possible in built up areas and that spending time in green spaces can be incredibly important to the health and well being of residents. 
Appreciating and nurturing urban birds is a mutually beneficial activity, for bird and human, and ultimately we hope that the project will start to reframe familiar sites for residents and users, encouraging people to use open green spaces more, and not just the landscaped civic ones. We also hope it will create conversation - leading to content which talks about what life is like in this area, and how citizens can make it better.
Budget items:
Purchase of caravan and renovation
Other materials for workshops and temporary exhibition
Artists Fees: 2 X artists for 10 contact days plus other time spent.

We also sent in images from previous works, and our C.V.'s. 
We were really pleased that our expression of interest began a conversation with the Appetite producers; to explore how the commission could support us as artists in working on a project locally, what we hoped to gain in experience, and how this could be build into the Appetite Kitchen programme of support for artists in the city. The commission was granted, and we are now embarking on the project. They will be announcing a call for Year Two commissions soon, so artists: watch this space.
So far, we have purchased a caravan, and found a site to store it and renovate it - transforming it from domestic holiday home, to urban bird hide.
Andy has ripped out the innards of the caravan, and will be rebuilding in the style of the bird hides that we have seen in our research process. (see Andy's write up here.) 
We are aiming to secure partnerships with 4 sites around the city to take our mobile bid hide in the Spring and Summer - and carry out our research processes, and creation of artworks. Then we will plan and deliver workshops on the sites with the public, or stakeholders. We hope that the sites we choose will be a combination of different types of land: managed green space, for example, the grounds of a stately home or public park, wetland spaces - for example Middleport Lake, a Brownfield Site and an inner city green haven are all possibilities to explore. We will begin the process shortly of finding partners or stakeholders in those areas, and discovering who might be interested in working with us.
One of the things I am hoping to learn about during the project, as well as exploring how the different sites support bird and other wild life - I want specifically to learn about how mosses and lichens can be used to ascertain the pollution and air quality of an area, and look at ways of working with these fascinating plants.
We are really looking forward to working with the Appetite Team to make connections, and are really grateful for the opportunity to see our ideas develop.
We are also pleased that there may be an opportunity within the project to see the artwork commissioned by Capsule for the New Library of Birmingham (see previous post) will be reused in the libraries around Stoke-on-Trent prior to our residencies around the city with the bird hide, as a way of raising awareness of what we are doing, and advertising out workshops and activity.
The Appetite programme is supported using public funding by Arts Council England and led by the New Vic Theatre in partnership with B ArtsBrighter FuturesPartners in Creative Learning and Staffordshire University. Appetite is also supported by Stoke-on-Trent City Council.

Birder's Paradise

In 2013 at AirSpace Gallery we developed the back of the gallery space to become what is now known as the Bird Yarden. We were really interested to think carefully about that outdoor space, as all around the city the many brownfield sites which had developed into interim wildlife havens are now being developed, leaving many birds and animals with less space to forage, nest and roam. Our little outdoor space is then an important part of the local ecology.
We designed the space so that the planting schemes and landscaping all maximise nesting and food sources for birds, as they are our most regular visitors. We have actually been feeding the goldfinches in the yard for around 4 years, and their numbers have grown as a result. The launch of the space was a fantastic success, and is documented here:
More than 100 people came to the gallery that day for the various talks and workshops, and we have a great time.
Myself and my partner Andrew Branscombe felt very positive about the experience. It was around the same time that we went for a walk around the grounds of Calke Abbey - and came across a series of bird watchers and bird hides, which got us thinking...People were very positive about the Bird Yarden, and it felt to us that accessing conversations with the public about the environment and birdlife seemed to happen much more easily than some of the conversations we have had about art. It is also pertinent to consider wildlife in urban environments in relation to regeneration, as many brownfield sites around Stoke-on-Trent are now being developed - and what have become impromptu wildlife havens are diminishing in number. We are interested in exploring whether developers consider local ecologies in relation to development.
This lead to a collaborative idea developing, we started thinking that our learning from the Bird Yarden could be taken out of the gallery, and around the city - visiting different sites, and exploring spaces through a project looking at Urban Birdlife and other wildlife.
We came up with Birder's Paradise.
Birder's Paradise would see us becoming Urban Birder's (Birdwatchers) with a mobile Bird hide lab, which can be taken to different sites, and used as a way of exploring space - and creating artworks and conversation about Regeneration, and the impact that man has on the environment, and the importance of making space for nature within development plans.
We hoped that we could explore potential opportunities for the project - putting together a proposal which involved renovating a caravan, turning it into a bird hide, which would be used as a residency space initially, to research and make works, and then carry out some workshops with the public, and later create an exhibition of our findings to be exhibited within the bird hide and toured around. We went on a research trip to Dungeness RSPB reserve.
We looked out for relevant commissions, and applied to a couple of projects which seemed to fit: but what we really wanted to do, was to carry out this project in Stoke-on-Trent, so we put the idea on the back burner, while we considered how to make it happen.
At that point there was a call for artists to propose works for the exciting New Library of Birmingham. I have always wanted to do a project in a library - and this looked really fantastic. So we thought about how Birder's Paradise could be adapted to a brand new library setting, and put forward a proposal to do a one-week residency at the library, working with the public to carry out 'birdwatching' activity and discovering species of birds that can be found in books, working towards creating a birdwatching trail through the library.
We were lucky enough to be shortlisted and later offered a commission (rather than the residency) to create the birdwatching trail. At first it seemed a bit strange to be offered the commission, as we had envisioned the participatory activity uncovering the content for the trail, but the commissioners (Capsule) felt the idea could work as an artwork, which would last from September to December - and therefore have more presence i9n the programme.
I The programme of commissioning which Capsule put together for the opening months of the new library was exciting, high profile and really high quality - so we were thrilled to be included. The couple of months leading up to the opening saw us working with Capsule to hone the idea for the Birder's Trail - and it really was a quite thorough process of negotiation, which I feel it is worth mentioning here, as other artists may find it interesting.
The commission budget was £1,000 between the two of us, and £2,000 materials/fabrication budget. We were really excited to be offered such a wonderful budget, and saw it as a real opportunity to create a beautiful new artwork.
We started to consider the format the artwork could take. Capsule suggested we could make the birds in the format of silhouettes cut out in perspex, which could be dispersed throughout the library. We felt that this would be striking, but that perhaps there were other options to be explored - then came the process of honing ideas and negotiating with the commissioner. We learnt quite a lot from this process, as often as the artist - you are not 'in the know' about the context and restrictions which you are working within, and have to feel your way through the process;
We thought about the idea of a curio cabinet: housing literary birds in glass vitrines.
Each vitrine could have it's own format - decided in relation to the book which the bird was from. We thought about a variety of approaches for each of the vitrines: making each bird different, for example: Bewick's beautiful book of woodblock prints of birds of the British Isles, having a woodblock housed inside the vitrine, which the public could take a rubbing from. The idea would be that the cabinet could be sited close to the entrance of the library, and our binoculars and worksheets could be inside, and a sign explaining that the birds from the cabinet have escaped, and can be discovered nesting and perching (in their vitrines) around the library.
We were excited about the cabinet, and found a carpenter who could build it for us, using stained woods, to give it character. Unfortunately, when we went back to the commissioner there were a number of problems with our idea: 1. the opening weeks of the library were expected to be incredibly busy (in fact in just over a week - the library welcomed its 100,000th visitor!) and so it would be impossible to find a site for the cabinet near the entrance. 2. Capsule had already commissioned a cabinet from another artist, and so didn't want another one. 3. though the variety of approaches might be interesting, it may also mean there is less of a recognisable identity to the artwork. 4. The vitrines themselves would be difficult to site around the library, and their could be problems with health and safety. And so with all of these issues, we needed to have a rethink.
Another idea we came up with involved using sheets of clear perspex, layered up to create a diorama, a technique I have seen used in regional museums and was keen to try out. We felt that this could work, as it could give the illusion of 3 dimensions, but be almost flat, and therefore we thought, more siteable in the new library. Andy created a mock up to explain what we wanted to do:
Again we went back to the commissioner with our idea, but unfortunately it turned out that it still would not work, as many of the 12 individual works for the trail would be sited at height (something we had not known before) and therefore the detail would be lost. Capsule advised us to revisit the original suggestion about silhouettes, and as time was getting close by then, we went with it.
So, we put forward a series of bird shaped silhouettes, each relating to a different book from the New Library of Birmingham's collection. We felt that black was the most appropriate colour for the perspex, but as the ceiling of the library is black in many places, and the sites of the birds would see them viewed, often from below with the ceiling in the background, in the end it was agreed that the perspex would be yellow: the same colour as the library floor.
We also built an a board, to be sited close to the entrance, where people could learn about the trail, pick up a pair of binoculars and a worksheet, and explore the new library.
In the end we were really happy with how the trail installation turned out. The negotiation and development process was much more involved than we had first thought - and in the end we felt that there was less creative space for us as artists than there may have been, but overall, we were really pleased to have been commissioned and included within the fantastic programme of artworks and events that Capsule had curated.
We led a couple of Birder's tours during the programme, which worked really well, and were a fantastic way to introduce the public to the literary significance of birds, and also the Library's collections.