Saturday, 5 July 2014

BENEATH THE PAVEMENT - The Participant's View - KAT BOON

Beneath the Pavement blog

As a long time lover of old buildings, falling down factories and ruined churches, any spaces that contain traces of former lives, AirSpace’s Beneath the Pavement workshop last weekend, supported by Appetite, was a dream come true. This had not been anticipated however. Growing up in Stoke, ‘I’m going up Hanley love’ was a frequently heard expression, but I have never shown the city centre the same attention I have lavished on other cities I’ve lived in. Whether I had assumed that there’s nothing there to see or had lacked enough pride to try perhaps, I’m not sure. But over the weekend, I truly found myself looking at the town centre. It was perhaps not pride this attention brought but excitement at least.

The act of looking was not straightforward. With the public realm improvements underway, the city already felt different since my last visit. Developed areas such as Albion Square certainly felt nicer to walk in, yet were oddly confused about their new pedestrianized status (‘were they, weren’t they?’ questions often brought to a halt by an oncoming bus). Looking was an imaginative process but undeniably also a critical one. Looking saw spaces designed to pull people in and yet subtly, or not so subtly, delineate their behavior whilst in these spaces and even keep some people out e.g. benches you can’t sit on for too long, anti-social architecture designed to keep skaters out. Looking also saw spaces that hovered on the border between being occupied and empty, living and dying, public and private.

Hanley certainly feels like a confused city. But perhaps not more so than any other post-industrialized place with a recovering economy still trying to figure out its purpose. There were many comments amongst artists about this lack of identity. But where does a place’s identity lie anyway? In the past? In regional stereotypes and branding? Or in some generic city landscape future? And, besides this, does it need one so explicitly? Or do people using spaces like they belong to them give that space all the identity it needs?

As an artist suddenly thrown into the public realm environment and looking to work with its council and business representatives, I was a little confused as to the purpose of our invitation to propose. Are we there to enhance public realm work, add embellishment, make the place feel unique to mitigate the generic nature of the developments? Or simply do something interesting to get more people in to what is fairly barren place?

These thoughts were further complicated by my not being a visual artist. Coming from a writing and theatre background I was not entirely familiar with ideas of the ‘public realm’ and ‘temporary interventions’.

However, one of the most highly effective yet simplest parts of the weekend was the repeated walks. These not only gave me opportunity to notice the beautiful architecture in parts of the city centre and the many great spaces available, there was also something about approaching the same place in different light, with different thoughts, at times in conversation and at other times in silence that forces you to keep reconsidering it, that nuances your thoughts.

The spaces I was drawn to as a writer and theatre maker were those which could host the live moment that people could gather before to experience something happening in real time. There were plenty to choose from. Empty high rise offices, with wide windows and balconies I could visualize performers occupying and plenty of little spaces that could accommodate gathering to witness this. Although the potential of these filled me with excitement, there was something in a way too theatrical, too contrived and imposing about them and what would be their harsh delineation between performer/artist and audience. Instead I looked for a space that could host the live moment but could belong to lots of people, not just one artist’s vision.

There’s a little space in Bethesda Gardens. It’s empty, solitary, mere inches off the ground and yet positioned in the middle of three benches. What did this space once host? Perhaps a memorial stone which has long gone, yet someone made a decision to leave it there. All the people who will have sat in those seats looking towards that empty plinth may have questioned it or may literally have overlooked it. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if people could use what is essentially a meter by meter tiny performance area. The simple act of standing on an even marginally raised platform subtly changes people’s relationship to the person stood on it, and directs people’s gaze and focus. Performances on the plinth would grant onlookers a reason to pause from the daily walk between the shops and the new offices in the Smithfield. Artists and the community could have their own space to occupy the live moment. On a summer lunchtime it could be a speaker’s corner, a musician’s corner, a poet’s corner. It may sound idealistic, but somewhere that people can also pause and look, and having identity simply in doing so at the same time.

Interestingly the second time we walked to the plinth, someone had written upon it, a message commenting upon alienation from our own spaces. By choosing to write upon the raised area and not on the surrounding space, something is said about the potential of this space to draw people in. All that it is needs are voices to occupy it.

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