Wednesday, 23 July 2014


Reflections on “Sous les pavés”

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.

Friday, 18 July 2014


 Emily Speed

Airspace blog

After some time has passed following the two very intensive days of ‘Between the Pavement’, four experiences stick very firmly in my mind. The first is the courthouse visit. I loved this space so much and it triggered all kinds of idea about theatre: the theatre of public office and of rituals and traditions. We need a performance as confirmation of something being true or official.

That wooden furniture!

It's a melancholy space too as you know that it is no longer truly necessary and it’s style gives away the fact that is belongs firmly in another era. I knew immediately that this was the seed of an idea for me, above all other things we saw over the two days in Stoke-on-Trent.

The second was the silent walk in the full group. It was fascinating how everyone spread out to quite a standard distance apart, mainly in order to avoid catching anyone's eye (a sure trigger for conversation). To absorb all those things that you feel compelled to share is tricky, but it has the effect of heightening your experience and observations and also acts as a filter; only those things that stick are the ones you end up sharing with others. I like how this allows the experience to become not only about the buildings, streets and signage, but about how people are in the space. At one point we stopped in a large square and it was fascinating that just the act of people standing apart and silent and looking all around was uncanny enough to draw attention. 

I also found great value in the artists’ and curator’s talks. Jennie Syson in particular gave a very thoughtful and fascinating talk about her work on Hinterland, a project she created from 2006-2010.

The last and most important thing was the other participants. I had a group who got quite deep into the thinking around how to work in the public realm and we ended up using most of the time for discussion.

I had initially planned to be active! to make things! However, it actually felt a bit forced or rushed and although this might have been frustrating for those who wanted to see products, I really believe that this kind of art-making is a long(ish)-term exercise. I was especially struck by the several artists who mirrored my own feelings about being in this situation; a blank response (possibly seen as a kind of failure) and feelings of being overwhelmed, or dare I say oppressed, by the amount of visual and aural information we ingested.


But I liked (and admired) that other people did make something within the two days and that mix of approaches was a really useful and exciting thing to be around. I look forward eagerly to seeing the responses in September, but in the meantime, I am still thinking about those benches…

Monday, 14 July 2014


Beneath the Pavement: The Participant’s View

In late June I had the privilege of attending an artist development course with Airspace Gallery and Appetite. Life has been so busy since that I’ve only just got round to writing this blog post, but I’m glad to have the opportunity to share my thoughts and experiences from two days spent with some truly inspiring people.

Enough has been written elsewhere about lead artists Anna Francis, Emily Speed, S Mark Gubb, Dan Thompson, Jennie Syson, and their work in the arts, so while I could babble for five hundred words about how impressive they all are, here I’m going to focus on the city and my reactions to it.

So it turns out Stoke-on-Trent is in a state of metamorphosis. A city-centre renovation is rolling out across Hanley like a stormcloud, turning everything grey and obvious. I had noticed it happening, of course, in the corner of my eye, although I found the results so thoroughly underwhelming that I had failed to stop and take stock of the changes until now.

With the exception of the poignant sculpture by Dashyline outside the new bus station (I met Sarah Nadin and she’s lovely), the impression is of new owners moving into an old house and painting all the rooms in shades of beige. On the one hand, I find all this a bit scary and alienating. On the other, a blank canvas is a scary prospect, and make no mistake, a blank canvas is what they’re building for us out there.

Yes it’s grey and the street furniture is specifically designed to be uncomfortable. Yes the visual and textural homogeny makes it a nightmare to navigate for the visually impaired (kudos to Katrinka Wilson for pointing that out). But ultimately, despite their best attempts to create a public space so frictionless and bland that no one could be offended by it or even notice they were in it, what the council has really built is not a cultural desert, but a sandbox. And we got to play in it.

On day one we were encouraged to look for spaces where artistic interventions could be implemented. By day two we were implementing them. I had the pleasure of working with Dan Thompson, who set me a micro-brief of making/doing something that would last just ten minutes. Inspired by the above graffiti, I decided to ‘bomb’ locations with statements and comic-strip images in chalk, taking no more than ten minutes on each piece. The results were eclectic and satisfyingly temporary. In fact many of them are probably gone already, washed away by the frequent rain.

I’ve come away from Beneath the Pavement with a fresh perspective on the city-centre as a space to create art, and I’m thrilled to have met so many talented artists working in Stoke-on-Trent. More than anything else I’m filled with optimism for the future of the city and I hope the cultural landscape continues to be shaped by these artists’ vision.

Thursday, 10 July 2014


By Michelle Rheeston- Humphreys

The first 'In The Window' exhibition commission, of the 2014-15 AirSpace ‘In The Window’ programme, was 'Walden-note Money' by Austin Houldsworth (12th-28th June 2014). 

'Walden-note Money' is part of a 3 year PhD research project Austin is undertaking at The Royal College of Art. It focuses on the development of a new design methodology, which the artist calls: ‘counter-fictional design’. Exhibiting at AirSpace ‘ In The Window’ provided Austin with an ideal opportunity to experiment with siting his work in the public realm and enabled him to test theory through practice.

‘Walden-note Money’ is based on the ideas explored in behavioral psychologist, B.F Skinner’s novel ‘Walden Two’. Interestingly the utopian novel preceded behavior analysis as a scientific methodology, and was in fact considered as belonging to the science-fiction genre at the time. The story, an anti-establishment social experiment, sees a small community habituated through behavioral conditioning. Controversially, it denies the notion of free will and operates on the hypothesis that environmental parameters, and the systems that generate or govern those factors, create a sociocultural system that approaches utopia; that the self-governance and flexibility of its design leads to a peaceful and functioning society. Notably in the novel the community is not reliant on a monetary system.

‘Walden-note Money’ appeared to be what looks like ‘a machine’; a hansom design consisting of a copper pipe and simple plywood construction; an invention for an alternative monetary system as the artist states: 'Walden-note money is a payment system designed to challenge the established monetary function of ‘a store of value.’ He explains: ‘During every transaction the seller is obliged to aid the buyer in the destruction of their money equal to the cost of the service or object he/she is purchasing. Through the destruction of money, musical notes are created which are linked to the coins denomination. For example a C is 1 Walden-note, a D is 2, an E is 3 and so on; these notes have two main functions. Firstly the pleasant sounds created help to positively reinforce this behaviour and secondly the burning money communicates the economic state of the society to the 'managers and planners'. 

Indeed Walden-note Money is a machine, a machine that functions (for a time at least). In The Window at AirSpace, the machine had the addition of a bright industrial yellow compressor, complete with coiled wires. The compressor is there to mimic the original action; the burning of the compound (money) tokens, in an act of exchange. This original action could be seen in the form of footage (intermittently as the sun fades) on the monitor adjacent, as well as on the stills sited above. It detailed a performance, ‘Walden-note Money’ in narrative action with resonance, steam and all. Not so in the window- no steam or smoke but the pipes loud enough (surprisingly) to be heard through the traffic. The machine went ‘off’ by set timer or a contact switch pad (for public engagement), which was attached to the window. After some deliberation this sensor was attached to the side panel, as not to be too obvious as to attract the unwanted attention of overzealous ‘evening’ passers by but still locatable to those intrigued by the piece. On reflection, due to the closed off nature of the window space that does not allow fully for participation (the reason for the hand contact sensor addition), the work might be more suited to a space offering further physical interaction with its audience.

The ‘In The Window #1’ exhibition was not without it’s problems; most particularly the ‘failings’ of the additional mechanics/ electrics of the compressor and timer switch. Opportunely this ‘testing’ allowed Austin to learn more about the mechanics of ‘Walden-note Money’. Testing and re-designing is at the core of the artworks ideology; in the novel, ‘Walden Two’ works by employing a malleable design; continually testing the most effective, evidence-based approaches in order to organise the community. In the story ‘Frazier’ states that ‘Walden Two’ therefore avoids how most other societies collapse or grow dysfunctional: by remaining inflexible in their politics and social structure.

These (so called) ‘failures’ are interesting in this context; the notion of ‘failure’ is often explored as an artistic strategy. Failure is the assumed ‘binary’ opposite of success; indeed no better binary set exists. Though undeniably the creative possibilities opened by failure are at the epicenter of artistic success.

The art community experience, interpret and utilize failure in a multitude of ways, so too, AirSpace Gallery and its Artists. At a recent AirSpace PAD event ‘Beneath The Pavement’ two established arts practitioners quoted one of my favorite Samuel Becket lines in their presentations “Try again- fail again. Fail better”. It was fitting that ‘Walden-note Money’ was ‘In The Window’ to coincide with the event, as it shared many of the same sentiments and concerns discussed during the two days events to re-imagine the city. It got a lot of attention from the participants and generated further dialogue. In addition politically it interrelates with two recently commissioned artworks for ‘The Bird Yarden’, which each explore nature’s detoxification of the capitalist monetary system, utilizing text from economists Friedrich Hayek's and Milton Friedman.

Walden-note Money (in the window) aptly, for an era of global banking corruption and current national austerity, is another monetary system that ‘failed’, albeit an attempted utopian one!


Beneath the Pavement was an amazing two days of presentations, walks interventions and discussions, concerning working within the art’s public realm sector in relation to Stoke-on-Trent, with the ultimate aim to improve the creative sector of the city. After a wonderful set of presentations from the programme’s lead artists and the invited speakers, I was grouped with Emily, Phil, Rachel and Jane, in which we began many discussion concerning possible ideas for working within the public realm, whilst taking further walks around the city. Although we didn’t actively create any works during the two days like some of the other groups, the chance to discuss and talk through different ideas was incredibly interesting and helpful. This allowed time to process the abundance of information for the development of ideas occur later on.

Initially I felt confused about what art within the public realm actually was. Was it transforming spaces into studios/exhibition spaces, creating pop up shops/café’s, tending to green spaces, improving aspects of the city such as seating areas, or responding to the place and site in response to own practice? I felt torn what was more important. However, I began to realise that working within the public realm can encompass all of the above aspects, and one type of intervention is not necessarily more important then the other.


After each walk, I became further drawn to the contrasting architecture and began to link this with my current research and practice. Emily suggested that utilizing my own practice within site wasn’t selfish (my initial concern) and could take form as small intervention, such as a publication about the city’s architecture or projections in overlooked corners of buildings. 

A week after the development programme, I’m still in a very early development stage in regards to my proposal, although last week I returned to Hanley to undertake another walk around the center for further inspiration. This time I brought my cameras, documenting some of the amazing buildings that inhabit Stoke (images within post). I think exploring the city further is definitely in order over the next month, I feel this could unearth many more hidden gems with potential and to help clarify ideas and thoughts.

Initial Observations and Thoughts:

I’ve listed below a few initial observation of the city center whilst undertaking the development programme:

· Cleaning and maintenance of city needs to be addressed, so much litter and derelict building. What is going to happen to the old Hanley Shopping Centre? However these buildings have so much potential, and some are incredibly beautiful (1 Bethesda is a fantastic example).

· Some amazing features (mosaic piece above Wilkinson and benches with willow patterns within the center of Hanley) have been unmaintained and overlooked; with a little care, these could be really brought to life.

· There seems to be a lot of small green spaces that need tending to, would it be interesting to create mini allotments/herb gardens which the community could benefit on (would there be enough space for this?)

· It was very bizarre how the new aspects of the city conjoined in an unusual manner with derelict and disused areas. One could easily walk through Parliament Row and be confronted by the neglected space within the Old Hall Street. How could this be addressed?

What are other initiatives within city’s that involve art within the public realm? I began thinking of activities and spaces that have took place in other cities, such as drawing tours or First Friday’s. Could these be adopted in Stoke?

Wednesday, 9 July 2014


A 5am start and a very early train to Stoke (via Bristol Parkway) saw me pitching up at Airspace Gallery just after the strict 9.30am start we had been ordered to adhere to. Sure enough, introductions were underway and I had the ever-so-slightly awkward walk through the room to take my seat at the back. Previously, I had only ever been to Stoke on four occasions; twice to teach at the university (and anyone who knows the location of the uni knows that on such a trip, you see the train station, a roundabout and the uni, nothing more), once when I was living in Derby and Port Vale made it in to the LDV Vans Trophy Final (a mate in Derby was from Burslem and a loyal Vale fan, so we all trooped up to Stoke to get a coach to Cardiff with hundreds of other Vale fans, to watch Vale triumph over Brentford in a half-empty Millennium Stadium) and once when I was working for a brief time as a guitar roadie for the legend that is Bernie Tormé (not a name familiar to everyone, but the man that replaced Randy Rhoads in Ozzy's touring band, whose first gig in that position was to a sold-out Madison Square Gardens. Needless to stay, it wasn't quite the Gardens we were paying in Stoke). So, in short, my knowledge of Stoke was undeveloped.

What unfolded over the next two days was a genuinely inspiring series of talks, walks and activities. Having an outsiders perspective on the city-centre-rebranded-Hanley was, I believe, a useful thing. I was struck by the volume of independent shops. Sure, there are a lot of empty shops too and places that could do with a lick of paint, but that's certainly not unique to Hanley. The lack of chains screamed to me way more than the chains do themselves; over the last twenty years I've lived between Derby, Nottingham and Cardiff, all great cities in their own right, but at one point in Nottingham you were never more than 200 yards from a Subway. I guess what I was noticing could be argued to be a city that's yet to take off – many thriving independent scenes being born as a reaction against gentrification and chains, not simply there as the other stuff hasn't happened yet, but I liked the feel of it. I was also struck by the positivity of the artists involved in the workshop, particularly those based in Stoke itself. A current lack of provision and engagement wasn't discussed in negative terms, it was discussed as opportunity. The recent graduates I met have stuck around as they can see the chance to make things happen; I was reminded of a late-90s/early-00s Nottingham where cheap rents and cultural gaps were enough to make the likes of Reactor, Moot and Stand Assembly stick around, and the city has literally never looked back since. Of course, this was a fairly rarefied environment we were existing within for our 48 hours together, but one that had a tangible generosity and willingness to add to the fabric of the fast-changing city centre. I look on with interest to see what happens next.


How ?
Hanley as a city centre, something that it never was before.
It has become a strange place, modelling itself on much bigger cities that are not separated between 6 towns.
Confronting the idea of it struck me as a particularly exciting venture and working with fellow artists was an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up. When I was offered a place on the project I was so excited to see what would happen and who I would meet.
I was not disappointed.
The Lead artists, Anna FrancisEmily SpeedS Mark GubbDan Thompson, were extremely interesting and informative, followed on the second day  by  Jennie Syson,  the curator and writer. All powered by   Appetite.   
We were welcomed on our first day by a map of Hanley and confronted with the question that would go on to lead the project “what would you change about Hanley?” It was interesting to see the answers that people came up with and the widespread changes we would make throughout the city- were we given free reign.
Over the two days we were working together we were privileged to have four varying and inspiring talks from our lead artists and J. Syson. I found there were several similarities with these artists/curator that made me feel excited:
There is no fear with these artists, they make their work and exhibit their work in any way they feel is appropriate/possible, they seem to have no self-doubt about the quality of the work,  and no doubt of what the audience want and finally, no doubt about whether the works they are producing is art.  (These are things that plague me as an artist)
I found this feeling of confidence totally empowering. It was so exciting to see people who are working and surviving as artists. Amazing.
It was also so invigorating to be in a group of like-minded people. Having studied fine art at University I mourn the loss of seminar groups and crits, so being back in a group of people who are open minded and outspoken was really something that I enjoyed.
On the first afternoon we were taken on a tour around Hanley showing us the town from viewpoints we may have never seen before. I was intrigued by the differing view points of all of the people and to hear what they had to say – in particular with relation to the Central Business District which is having a huge new building being thrown up in Hanley just now.
We were also invited into spaces that aren’t generally open to the general public and this was an interesting thing to do, aiding with cohesive feel of the programme, we had all been to the beach underneath the pavement.
Later on that day we had a couple more walks around the town. I was invited into Anna Francis’ team where we went on a blind walk. This was a totally extreme experience it was simultaneously terrifying and unifying, and intimate. Myself and the other members of my group (Michelle Rheeston-Humphreys, and Morna Lockie-Anrig) held hands and Anna pulled us through whilst we had our eyes closed. We talked about how it felt when we had our eyes closed and Anna noticed how hard it was to pull us through, doing something we weren’t sure of. I feel like this is actually a brilliant physical metaphor for working in partnership with the planning committees that will change our city.
At the end of the first day we were charged with the notion f change and were asked to think about an intervention that we could do on day two.
My mind rushed with ideas and I felt very excited by the prospect of being able to do something quickly and with the support of the programme. After long consideration about what was really needed and after a quick conversation in the morning of the second day we decided that we would all work together. That we would make a small intervention that would compromise a picnic space, a sort of café, and a planning permission sign, all in order to start conversation.
We had decided that the most important thing was that ‘the people’ got their say about how they want Hanley to be, and about what they love and dislike and would change too. 
We headed into town armed with cakes and tea and pens and paper and wild flowers, and set up or space. We had a few people talk to us, but unfortunately I’m not sure where we set up shop was the best place it had changed from when we had settles upon it that morning. It had become loud and there were lots of inebriated people around there making it quite and intimidating spot in some aspects.
However, I felt that this was a good thing, as a challenge is always encouraging.  It’s always going to make the achievement that little bit better.
There was so much packed into the two days and so much that could be talked about, but overall I want to say thank you to appetite and Airspace for an amazing opportunity. Thank you for my sketch book and Lunch, and thank you to all of the Artists who were so inspiring and amazing in every aspect and so encouraging.
I’m nervous about writing my proposal, because I want to make sure that it lives up to all it could be, but also so looking forward to seeing what everyone else does and comes up with!

Here’s to artists!

BENEATH THE PAVEMENT - The Participant's View - SAM MACE

Please, please let’s let things grow!

Two days to dream, to explore the possibilities for artists to play a part in the changes that are taking place in the city centre (or is that Hanley…? and is it a city or is it six towns…?)

Delightfully hosted by the dedicated hardworking team at Airspace together with Appetite both strongly committed to promoting the arts in Stoke-on-Trent I felt nurtured and valued, not least by the fantastic lunch, cake and refreshments. This was much needed sustenance as it was an intense couple of day, packed with information to take in about the city and the developments. After this getting on with some interventions of our own. More nourishment came in the way of inspiring presentations by the four lead artists Anna Francis, Emily Speed, Mark Gubb and Dan Thompson, then later Jennie Syson. I felt at home and encouraged by these approaches to art in the public realm which was also reflected in the ‘The New Rules of Public Art’. No room for complacency, however, as hearing from the council’s landscape architect also got me pondering the role of the artist. Are we to subvert, draw attention to? Are we a tokenistic way to ease the passage of changes, placing sugar coating on top-down plans? Whose interests may we serve? How do we retain integrity? Who is paying us?

…reimagining the city

The silent walk led by Emily was a great way to settle into the creative process and allow a response to our brief to emerge. I felt more attuned to the spaces and the shifts between the busier, ‘cleaner’ areas such as the new bus station and then the dilapidated shopping precinct. Now a pigeon’s paradise, it’s been taken over by the birds and people looking for somewhere out of view for a smoke or a drink. Aptly it reminded me of the beach, the flotsam and jetsam washed up. Signs of what has been before. Resistance subsided as I embraced ‘blue’ and the plastic takeaway fork became my talisman. I realised the benefits of a brief for helping to focus.

I’m drawn to the detail, minutiae, things discarded and considered ugly. I was having fun, collecting blue treasures from the streets and reintroducing them as small arrangements. Time was running out yet there was a hive of creative activity as we all set to work with interventions. I felt amongst kindred spirits and like minds. Hearing from accomplished artists working in the public realm and meeting the other participants I felt reassured and optimistic that there is a place for subtle comments and thoughtful interventions in Stoke. In a small space of time we had created a playful idyll, visioning utopias and possibilities of what could be achieved given the chance.

As we broached the question of ‘where do we go from here’ reality hits and for me some confusion sets in. However, Beneath the Pavement showed me the potential for what is achievable by bringing a group of artists together in Stoke. I would have loved more time to work with the other artists and believe there is a good argument to create a way to share and explore ideas together for common schemes and dreams. I look forward to developing my own ideas that came out of the two days and would like to link this in with others as there were a lot of commonalities and the energy and enthusiasm here is really something to harness.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.” Margaret Mead