Wednesday, 23 July 2014

BENEATH THE PAVEMENT - The Participant's View - JANE HOWIE


Reflections on “Sous les pav├ęs”

On the 27th and 28th June 2014, I spent a very intensive 2 days in Stoke-on-Trent on the “Beneath the Pavement” artist development programme. It’s quite difficult to describe the experience of being back in Stoke a couple of years after graduation: experiencing familiar places from a different perspective, some radically changed by the “Regeneration” not necessarily for the better. 

As always I welcomed the chance to get inside some of the buildings such as the Mitchell Arts Centre, Hanley Town Hall, the under development but still nicely dilapidated No.1 Bethesda and some of the private offices of the Library with a view of the “Smithfield” development.


It was also good to meet old friends and make new ones. Throughout the 2 days the experience of moving round the city, constantly accompanied by my fellow creatives: exploring, photographing, making interventions and commenting on things we had found was very warming, it was nice being part of a group again: and the discussions and interventions in the spaces along with the city itself, triggered many, many new ideas for making art.

I did however also find it overwhelming in terms of the amount of new information delivered at a very fast pace, no time to “stand and stare” and also slightly claustrophobic. My usual mode of wandering a city is solitary, beachcombing for images, impressions and small objects: pausing at intervals to soak up the feel of the city and reflect on it. I really needed the green space at the end of the Bird Yarden, each lunchtime to remove some of the static from my brain. I found Anna’s silent walk helped with this also, though it did puzzle some of the passers by as to why we weren’t speaking to them and comments such as “she must be foreign”and “Is it a University project” were very funny. 


The presentations gave interesting insights into other artists’ areas of practice and approach to working in the public realm. I was particularly struck however, when listening to Steve Ralphs from the council regen team, how different the attitude and approach of the town planner is from that of the creative in regard to the form of the spaces we live in and how they should be used.

The planner seemingly “playing it safe”, going for generic solutions designed by firms from out of the area, creating a bland cityscape, with streets all looking the same, that could be anywhere in Europe. Making spaces that are not nice to linger in, with no natural gathering points and benches you can’t sleep on. Also perversely keeping in house the design of public artworks, which could so easily be an opportunity to put out a call for local artists to design something unique and site specific.

Whilst applauding the intention to make the city centre more friendly to pedestrians and less cluttered with inappropriate street furniture, I really dislike the way it is being done, steamrollering out any individuality and variation and making a space which people are reluctant to linger in due to the hostility of the seating. I cannot recall seeing anyone actually sitting on any of it in our many walks round the city.




As in the picture above : the ground is an odd mishmash of colours and textures, the “seating” is made of cold stone, which seems to retain water and is curved to prevent anyone lying down on it. It was uncomfortable to sit on and drinks etc. couldn’t be balanced on it, I would hate to be a parent trying to change a baby or pensioner sitting down for a breather on the way from the bus station to the shops!

 
                          



I was particularly saddened by the lost opportunities to reflect the individual features of the different streets: instead of the mostly grey stone used ubiquitously throughout for paving and “benches”, which 
does not really go with any of the buildings ancient or modern, why couldn’t the lovely colours of the buildings be reflected in the particular road surface for that street? e.g. these lovely mosaics on the building above could have inspired the cobbles beneath. Instead a strange mixture of very pedestrian pavers has been used 

The Artists on the other hand imagined a multiplicity of different spaces: filled with art, colour, movement and people. Spaces for performance, spaces with comfortable seating to stop and chat to people on, quiet spaces full of green growing things to eat your lunch in and people friendly architecture. Upside down trees above the streets, fountains and streams flowing through the city, green corridors to encourage the wildlife in to the city and provide respite from the hectic 21st century, camouflaged buildings and much, much more. 


One of the things which stuck me as we navigated round the city centre was the was the amount of green growing things still hanging on, some of it which had obviously been planted, much of it self sown. 




Overall my impressions are of a city in flux, where a precious opportunity for artists to influence the spaces we occupy in the city should not be missed. There are so many possibilities for encouraging people into the city and making it the spaces usable and welcoming, without losing all the unique architecture and green spaces that are already there.

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