Sunday, 6 July 2014

BENEATH THE PAVEMENT - The Participant's View - MICHELLE RHEESTON


BENEATH THE PAVEMENT- A Participants View-
Michelle Rheeston-Humphreys

‘Beneath The Pavement’ began a day early for me, with a happenstance sneak preview of the converted gallery space. It was pretty much already prepped for the next day’s ambitious events.  In that instant, contemplating the transformed gallery space, I was reminded of how recurrently I am inspired by the AirSpace Gallery team’s endless hard work and commitment; to provide diverse artist opportunities and to their regeneration of the city and its contemporary arts scene. I am fascinated by this process of transforming spaces by creative vision and endeavor and the impression it has on those who inhabit and experience it. This is why I was instantly drawn to take part in this opportunity to re-imagine the city of Stoke-on Trent.



I first came to Stoke in 2011 for a ‘Factory Nights’ project considering artistic approaches to the new bus station, planned to be built in Hanley (now built) and the impact this would have on the existing, partially abandoned (now totally abandoned) bus station and shopping precinct circa 1970s. Since then I have been involved with a number of public realm art projects within Stoke.  ‘Beneath The Pavement’ however has a different approach, most notably because of the arrival of Appetite. Appetite has been working alongside AirSpace to commission a group of artists to work collaboratively, to generate ideas and to propose an alternative approach to the current city. The results of which, will highlight the vital benefits of city councils to work with artists, to regenerate our dysfunctional cities effectively. This issue is particularly significant for Stoke City Council, due to the recently recognized lack of engagement with the arts and the distinctive dislocation of the six towns that make up Stoke-on-Trent.



‘Beneath The Pavement’ is steered by four lead artists: Anna Francis, Mark Gubb, Emily Speed and Dan Thompson, all with crucial insight into, and experience of, working in the public realm.  Our first day unfolded with each artist taking to the stage, filling our heads full of a variety of images, information and strategies; every presentation distinctive, thought provoking and inspirational.
To break up the presentations we followed a city tour by Jonathan Bellamy and Rachel James, which outlined the plans from the City Centre Partnership.  We gained further insight into the inner workings of the city council from the public realm landscape architect, in his ‘opinion provoking’ presentation. It genuinely emphasized some of the difficulties and restrictions the regeneration team has to work under, as well as the fateful problems this pressure leads to. This set us up for an ambitious task, to subvert and remedy these glitches and gaps in the city that are created by these very contexts.



It was at this point we were ready to take action. I was in a group led by Anna Francis- quite literally. Anna led us all, eyes closed and holding hands, around, through and across what felt like the entire cultural quarter of the city.  Yet it was in only 100 yards from the front steps of AirSpace. Our journey terminated at a little green space opposite the library. This experience simultaneously took us out of our comfort zones, prepped us to work together and sited us in a new location. Also it allowed us to see and experience the city in a new and different way.  We each took turn to lead the walk, stopping when we found a gap; at each gap we discussed and together suggested possible solutions.

  


Some of the observed gaps were empty shops (and the type of shop), lack of green space (except the brownfield wildflower meadows), the new bus-station and open’ public realm’ space. These gaps are not welcoming or inhabitable, specifically the new seating.
The suggested solutions we discussed included introducing more green space into the city and making the public realm space more inhabitable. We further discussed different ways this could be done effectively.
By this time we were humming with the days’ events and it was a perfect time to walk the city in silence led by Emily Speed.
I couldn’t sleep that night as too many things were swimming round my head and I was thoroughly looking forward to the next day’s events …

After a night to reflect, on arrival at the gallery we discussed what we as individual artists, thought the positives and negatives of the city were. This activity made concrete our shared observations and underlined the essential areas needed for reinvention/artist intervention.
Next public realm curator Jennie Syson delivered an impressive and immersive presentation of her work curating art outside of the gallery, and the trials and tribulation of her practicing in that way.
I found Jennie’s work and presentation incredibly simulating-again it was time to act.

  


As a group we decided to produce a gesture of our musings, combining our 3 individual plans into one performative event (with planning consent posted). This gesture was a city picnic of sorts, which we could share with passers-by, enabling them to give their views of the city; enticing them into a dialogue, by way of an offering: food, flowers and a ‘comfortable’ seat. It was envisaged that this artist ‘seat’ intervention would draw attention to the recently sited, and arguably hostile, public realm seating - a pandemic of the contemporary city landscape across the country.





The suggestion was that these seating adaptions could be a leasable, portable solution to the problematic seating situation; making the entire city space ready at any time for an impromptu picnic (a moment of relaxation), with the intention of transforming the city into a more social space.

Beneath The Pavement- of Stoke-on-Trent, there is a wild flower meadow; this is evident in the abundant lush brownfield sites…

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