Saturday, 27 February 2016

AirSpace Gallery research visit #1 - In Certain Places, Preston

In Certain Places headquarters, Preston

In 2015, AirSpace Gallery received some funding through A-N (Artist Newsletter)'s Go&See Programme. The funding was timely. We had just come to the end of a 2 year Arts Council-funded programme, and had been awarded new 3 year funding, and we were in the process of commissioning a reflective creative evaluation of our activities in order to best tailor our activities for 2015-2018.

Hand in hand with reflection on activity goes research into how other organisations are effectively (or not) operating in similar areas. During an unfunded period prior to 2013, the new directorate at AirSpace had decided on a subtle change in approach. We had decided to take stock of our organisation, and our position in and relevance to our city - Stoke-on-Trent. We wanted to harness our individual concerns, around themes of sustainability, contemporary existence, human relationship with the land, and the artist's role and their regenerative powers in improving the overall societal condition of a city - and build them in to a high quality contemporary visual arts programme within a Gallery which would be relevant to our surroundings. We were clear - we thought there was little appetite for a "white cube", "London" experience here in Stoke - but there was space for a programme which explored ideas pertinent to this city and cities like it, and the experience(s) of its inhabitants. We wanted to diversify our activity, taking content out of the Gallery in to the Public realm, and using the city as Gallery space, and taking our ideas out to the audience, where they could be viewed and engaged with on the public's terms, rather than sitting back and expecting visitors in to our building, on our terms.

After this initial turn in direction, the three Go&See visits we undertook in December 2015 offered us valuable insight in to how we might ensure our next steps built on this initial activity and embedded this way of working into our next 3 year programme. Visit #1 is outlined here, with #'s 2&3 to follow.

My visit took me to Preston and the enduring Public Realm project In Certain Places.

In Certain Places is a programme of artistic interventions and events, led by curators Elaine Speight and Professor Charles Quick, with the support of associate Rachel Bartholomew, in the School of Art, Design and Fashion at the University of Central Lancashire. Based in the City of Preston, in the North West of England, the project examines how artists can contribute to the form and functions of a place, by exploring new approaches to art, culture and urban development.
Since 2003, In Certain Places has worked with artists and architects to develop temporary interventions in Preston City Centre, hosted artists’ residencies, and organised talks and debates about art practice and place. Collectively, these activities have generated new understandings of the urban environment, enabled new ideas to be tested in the city’s public spaces, and formed collaborations between artists, institutions, communities, businesses and other individuals in Preston and beyond.
The project is financially supported by the University of Central Lancashire, Preston City Council and the Arts Council of England through their Grants for the Arts scheme. - source: ICP website
My 2 day visit to Preston comprised an interview with Elaine Speight and an observer's role in to a new project, taking them outside the City's centre - to its rural, and developmental outskirts.

 - There are several synonymical crossovers between Preston and Stoke-on-Trent.

Both are post-industrial cities, a little dwarfed by larger urban neighbours. Both are small, walkable cities, surrounded by and nestling inside beautiful rural countyside. Both have civic art spaces, universities, historic buildings and are studded with large public spaces. Neither is renowned for being go-tos for contemporary art, and have been described as "cold-spots" by Arts Council England in their funding strategy. These are, on the surface, difficult places to operate and deliver contemporary arts programmes. Producers and artists have to work a little harder to operate in such places, where the public is maybe a little "art-sceptical".

ICP began as an arts collaboration and informal partnership between the Harris Museum and Art Gallery and the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan), and is now based exclusively at UCLan. Elaine describes ICP as a project rather than an organisation with an autonomy of operation, with no board to report to.  It has no venue, which directly affects its relationship with an audience as there is no "go-to" place for people to attch ICP to in their minds.

I was interested in how ICP works with and develops its audience in a non-gallery, public realm setting - an area increasingly important in AirSpace's programming. 

ICP has a core audience, developed over the years of accumulative activity, mostly regional, from Preston and surrounding areas, made up of artists, graduates of UCLan's MA programme, and members of the public who are interested in art and place and cultural activity happening in the city.

But when asked whether ICP factored the non-core audience in to their project planning, Elaine was clear.
"I think..I suppose, and this is something people have said to me as a criticism, I think, maybe, we're more interested in the artist and the artwork, perhaps, than the audience. (for us) we're interested (primarily) in the project and what that might be."
Me: And so you trust that the artist and the strength of the artwork will automatically generate and attract an audience?

"Yeah. I think our audience is very self-selecting. Our work since we started has always been focused on the city centre, rather than small towns or suburban communities, where lot of different things happen and no one necessarily has ownership of it - people work there, live there - and so our work, (which is about place rather than the individuals within it) has never been targeted at particular types of people, but each project, due to the nature of the work and the nature of the artist, develops its own audience. So for instance, when we made a film with Shezad Dawood, we had loads of people involved in that who were actually in the film, working as extras and crew, but they got involved because they were interested in being in a film. And then with the project that we've just done - The People's Canopy , that involved all sorts of people because it was more of an architectural framework, specifically involving community groups.
Iain Broadley did a piece of work for the Preston Guild called The Black Parade where he developed this whole float and parade as part of the Preston Guild Processions. He was interested in working with people from the Goth sub-culture, something which he identifies with, and so he brought to the project people he already knew from within that subculture and also working with a lot of young people who hang around the city centre. Also, when John Newling did his Preston Market Mystery Project , just because of where it was, that involved the stall holders and the shoppers.
So, I think the audience for a work, and the audience can sometimes be quite tiny, I guess, and sometimes the audience is quite incidental, in that they might experience the work, but not know that it's an artwork, like some of the sound pieces that we've done, is either accidental, or self-selecting, but not the driving force behind a project. "

Working in the Public Realm, as a pose to a Gallery setting would seem to demand a relationship with public authorities. How does In Certain Places view this aspect of their activity?

Elaine affirms the importance of a good working, trusting relationship with the City Council in order to operate effectively in the Public Realm. She recalls, however, a tricky early relationship with the Council in In Certain Place's early years. As well as a complicated internal bureaucratic structure, largely around the city's regeneration policy, they had to overcome some scepticism borne of what seemed to be an inability to visualise the efficacy of Public Realm work that wasn't traditional sculpture. She cited Jeppe Hein's piece - Appearing Rooms, the value and spectacle of which, once eventually installed and operative, became immediately clear to the councillors, who at that stage could "get" the work and buy in to its worth. From there and through subsequent large scale "impact" works such as "Harris Flights", the working relationship has become more tenable - it's easier to negotiate the intricacies involved and an acceptance of a project's value is more readily forthcoming. Elaine noted an important individual relationship with a member of the Council's Planning team - Nigel Roberts who has risen through the Council to a top Job in  Planning and Urban Design - who was consistently supportive of the ICP project.

It's clear from talking to Elaine, that there isn't a specific strategy to target effective working relations with the Council, more, it's an organic trusting relationship built through activity and consistency of activity and proving, through successful delivery of projects that there is minimal risk.

Up until recently, support from the Council has largely been logistical, save for some very small offers of cash support. However, recently, with the advent of Preston's City Deal project (which is a long term, nationally-funded housing and regeneration project), In Certain Places has attracted more substantial financial support from Preston Council - which can only be as a result of embedding itself within the City's cultural fabric over a long time and over the course of a series of projects.

The interest here, beyond the importance of Council involvement and support in the delivery of Public Realm projects, refers directly back to In Certain Place's core way of working. It is about PlaceMaking and right at the heart of that is the artist and the artwork and the notion that
" artists are part of a place as well "
The result, and this is vital, of consistent successful delivery of well-received, high quality art projects carried out with the public, in the Public Realm, which ultimately garners the acceptance and support of authoritative and institutional bodies, is that it affirms, embeds and cements the cultural sector and the position of the artist in a place alongside those more traditionally associated components - business and the public sector.

And so, from here, we started to talk about the particulars of place and ICP's particular way of working. I wondered if In Certain Place's focus was about Place, or was it specifically about Preston? Elaine was keen to stress some important factors in ICP's approach.

 - work with and support local artists, not just because they are local - quality of work should not be secondary, but an understanding that to strive to ensure the involvement of the artist in a place, you have to acknowledge their existence, and work to develop and support them.

"For me, it's not  about place or about Preston, it's about doing things in  a place. It's about being part of a place. Through our activity, and through the projects, we start conversations about Preston, that also have a wider relevance to other places. But, again, it all comes down to the artists that we work with and how they respond to the place."

 - Don't "do art to people" - make sure that you shape your arts project so that it's part of a place and an everyday experience.

"Becky Shaw, in her essay ("Local Art for Local People" in Subplots To a City p155-148) articulates this really well. She says when artwork is just there in a place, and presented to people, without any other context - so without being in an art gallery, or seen within an arts festival, it kind of has to work a lot harder because it's up against this cacophony of a place, of commercial things and everyday routines - and it has to do something within that. At the same time she talks about how this frameless encounter also means that the art isn't "done" to people. People can engage with it, but on their own terms. And they can choose not to, and I think that's fine."

 - A "spectactle" in Public Art isn't necessarily important but it can be useful.
"One of the things we've learned is that because we don't have a regular visibility, not having a venue, not having things happening all the time, sometimes you need a spectacle to benefit thos things that aren't spectacular. We've done really quiet pieces of work like Lisa Wigham's The Waiting Room or Magda Stawarska-Beavan's sound piece The Arcade that maybe have the incidental, accidental audience that we were talking about - and they're really quiet works - but maybe it's helpful for those to have the spectacles like the Canopies we've just done where we went from the University and cycled them up in this big procession up to the Flag Market, and people were coming out of shops to see - and it was a really unusual event. Those events, visually striking, photograph really well and are easy to put out on Social Media which increases the audience. By doing that high profile visual project it maintains the visibility, perhaps, of In Certain Places, which is, hopefully, useful for the artists who are making smaller, quieter pieces."
 - The "Temporary" and "Momentary" in the Public Realm
" I don't think it's necessary for Public Art to be temporary or permanent. You can have permanent pieces of public art which are successful but they work in a different way to the temporary. The temporary is useful for us because we're interested in testing things - in Preston - and if other people want to take those on then that's great. It's about starting a conversation. That's how we see In Certain Places - having a conversation with Preston and bringing people in to that conversation - whether that's artists or members of the Public, or the Council or the University. So in that sense, the artworks are contexts for conversations."

This was a fascinating and wide ranging conversation, with invaluable learning strategies for us at AirSpace Gallery and potentially an evidential model for our city's stakeholders to draw inspiration and trust from . At a time when Stoke-on-Trent is planning a bid to become the UK's next city of culture in 2021, In Certain Places is a proof of the worth of understanding the role, the professional role of the artist in a place. People talk about In Certain Places in terms of being within Preston's DNA or a constituent part of its soil structure. A Part of the place, doing things alongside and with other people, some of who happen to be artists. Their long term approach utilising short sharp projects is a model to be admired and learned from.

The last word, here should go to Elaine's In Certain Places colleague, Charles Quick from his website.
"In Certain Places has successfully raised the level of ambition for Preston's public realm, both within the City Council and the wider community, and has generated a national profile for Preston as an aspirational city. Evidence that the programme has changed attitudes towards the role of art within Preston's redevelopment has become increasingly visible and decision-makers, such as the Council's Planning department, have adopted a holistic and ambitious approach to the inclusion of art within the city's public spaces."


DAY TWO of the research trip allowed me an insight into ICP's next project - a multi artist exploration of Preston's City Deal initiative - a housing, transport and regeneration scheme looking to transform and modernise the city into the 21st Century. This initial scoping exercise is inviting a group of 6 artists - a mix of local and national - Gavin Renshaw, Rebecca Chesney, Emily Speed, Olivia Keith, Ruth Levene and Ian Nesbitt - to respond to the scheme. It was obviously early days, as the group were toured around specific areas of interest, and given background info by Charles Quick and Elaine Speight, but immediately of interest was the characteristic slow and considered, long-termist approach adopted by In Certain Places. here the artists were being afforded time - at least a year, with the prospect, funding permitting, of longer to research develop and deliver their works.

My privilege, here, was to be invited to see this stage, allowing me to follow its progress with an understanding of context, and I'm looking forward to seeing its resolution, and bringing that learning back to our city.

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