As well as commissioning permanent public realm and re-branding art works, regeneration companies routinely hire Community Artists for targeted direct contact with communities where regeneration plans are afoot. Artists are brought in to aid goodwill, engender trust, involve people, and mediate change, as much as to make art. The kind of art that might change perceptions of an area, adorn the pages of an annual report, be used in a Public Inquiry or add value to property development. Artist’s residencies on regeneration projects have documented environments destined for destruction, used demolition spoil for building artwork, and collected The Hopes of a neighbourhood. The Fears though? Not so much. The creative agenda for Community Art projects funded by the regenerist will likely differ from that of the local artists or residents. One is primarily concerned with promoting a Promised Land, the other is focused on surviving the external investment, and the social cleansing or gentrification that might come with it.
The task of shining a light on the displacement and dismay of the people designed out of post-demolition development is not going to be supported by the developers and regeneration officials. Such visions run contrary to the interests of the development partnerships. By chance, I joined one of many communities destined for demolition in 2004, when my home and neighbourhood in Liverpool were scheduled for destruction. I translated my experience as a piece of human spoil into an art work that was appreciated by the local community and others like it. It was reviewed in the art press, covered in the academic press and was toured in a North of England textile exhibition. The work Nothing Is Private - a net curtain with audience activated security lighting was shown and promoted as part of Liverpool Independents Biennial in 2006. So it straddled many communities and resonated in multiple contexts. It was shown in the front window of my home. I live over the road from Granby in an area similarly blighted by failed regeneration schemes and where another grassroots campaign has succeeded in rescuing homes from the bulldozers.
When my home and studio in Liverpool’s Welsh Streets was threatened with demolition in a regeneration area, the Compulsory Purchase Orders did actually come with the sweetener of an official artist-in-residence, Moira Kenny, who came and worked in an empty house in Powis Street for a number of weeks in June 2006. The residency, funded by the local Housing Market Renewal (HMR) company New Heartlands and their partners Plus Dane, took place in an empty corner shop on the contested site. Applications for the post were filtered. I was forbidden from tendering for the official Welsh Streets residency, despite being a Welsh Streets resident and an artist. As secretary and spokesperson for the local campaign group seeking alternatives to demolition, I had a national media profile, my opinions were known, and the protagonists of the scheme presumably needed to prevent me from articulating dissent amongst a local audience. In protest, a reputable local Community Art group refused to apply for it themselves as a response to my exclusion. So they filtered themselves out in solidarity.
A closed tender process selected an artist from outside the area, but inside the arts community, who came and made artwork in Powis St. I showed my work concurrently with her official Welsh Streets residency work as part of Liverpool Independents Biennial 2006. I suppose I effectively infiltrated the programme of creative work visible in the district, made a local dimension available and overcame the ban by simply being a) a resident and b) an artist. The work - the net curtain - received critical acclaim expounding the loss of privacy and personal autonomy faced by the little people when confronted with big plans. Its performative aspect (the work exposed the household to the street by lighting them) was as uncomfortable for the viewer as it was for the viewed. Rather than sit by and become the invisible Welsh Streets resident artist passed over by powerful external interests, I created a piece that engineered super visibility. Without a doubt I was emboldened by the support of my community. The Nothing is Private net was made and toured as part of the Mechanical Drawing exhibition produced by the Embroidery Department at Manchester Metropolitan University. So it was enabled by another community: the embroiderers, textile makers, lace workers and academics in the North West who view me as a radical textile artist, and a bona fide member of their community. So they visited too, traveling to the Welsh Streets mostly from the North. I put out a visitor’s book and people wrote in it, thus becoming part of the archive of commentary about the streets, the houses. A new dimension was added to the cultural tourism package that Liverpool is so proud of: the ghetto tourism of the tinned-up terraces.
They were followed by Heritage tourists, UNESCO walking tours, Jane’s Walk town planners, law and social science departments, urbanists, artists, drama, art and composition students, historians, archivists, architects and journalists, TV crews and animators. All visited the Welsh Streets and as campaign spokesperson I spoke with them all. In 2016, Samson Kambalu filmed in the Welsh Streets for a new commission that was presented as part of Liverpool Biennial 2016. He walks in the footsteps of numerous photographers, among them Mark Loudon & Sandy Volz (commissioned by Welsh Streets Home Group), Rob Bremner, Peter Carr, Peter Haggerty and Ciara Leeming, who included us in her comprehensive photographic journal of the HMR process. Kambalu will join countless press photographers, TV cameramen and bloggers. All welcome, all walking the wasted Welshies, pointing cameras at our homes while we twitch our nets.
And me, I’ve taken thousands of photographs here too, because as campaign spokesperson, I found that a picture speaks a thousand tears. The net curtain Nothing Is Private is a direct action that harnessed art as both a shield and a decoder in a war of information. It can be contextualised among other cultural resistances that re-negotiate imposed narratives. Here the flimsiest, lowliest media articulated the experience of dread and degradation experienced by communities in clearance zones and became a testimony to that experience. It was documented in art and academic publications. Could it have been commissioned by a Community Arts organisation? None that I know of. Community Art tends to avoid controversy. The work toured Northern cities where large-scale demolition was also being un-rolled, by coincidence of economic history and the demise of textile production in the region. The regeneration consortia have a commissioning agenda and PR budget focused on the need to mediate the developer’s aspirations. Anything else the community produces – well, the community will pay for. And pay they did.
Cultural output from the broader community followed the net curtain. There was an extraordinary outbreak of unsolicited, unfunded and sometimes un-legal cultural intervention in and around the contested Welsh Streets. Playwrights, community theatre groups, poets, photographers, graffiti mongers, choirs, bands, filmmakers, animators, stitchers, photographers, seed-sowers and yarn bombers passed through the Welsh Streets each leaving a small mark. Mark of respect maybe. To residents each small work marked a small survival. Morale was super-boosted with every contribution. It blew over the road into Granby Four streets, who were, according to them, quite sparked up by the Welsh Streets tin sheet drawings and daffodil planting. They were to go creative in grand style - with paintings and planters that far exceeded our Welshie productions in scale and quality.
The genius Granby neighbourhood campaigners founded a community market that included music, art, food and stalls. That meant a financial, social and cultural exchange mechanism was operating across two clearance sites, one on either side of Princes Avenue. It was a community, and it was art – but unique, self-directed and un-administered. We (that is, the Welsh Streets Home Group or WSHG) swapped campaign news, traded ideas and ran campaign events on stalls at the Granby Four Streets Market, at carnival, in Toxteth Town Hall, Toxteth TV and in the local shops and chippies. We had received local and national press for years, but nothing glued us together and drew us out and drew us together as well as culture did. A community of supporters had made themselves visible independently, creatively and repeatedly. The media coverage of threatened communities and their homes in the Welsh Streets was un-abated; four TV features supplemented considerable print and radio coverage.
Liverpool Biennial began projects in Anfield and Bootle, both areas stalked by the bulldozers. As the renowned Homebaked Anfield project went from strength to strength, TV foodie Jay Rayner arrived to judge a baking contest. I entered a loaf of bread in the bake off, for which I made special commemorative packaging. It was a throwaway thing. Merchandising survival. The wrapper read ‘RISE UP ANFIELD’ in red and ‘Greetings from the Welsh Streets’ in green. I took a picture and tweeted it. It pinged - appearing in ghost form when Liverpool Football Club used a similar wonky red text to repeat my slogan on a 12 x 24 ft hoarding outside the ground, opposite the Homebaked bakery. So Rise Up left the bread wrapper, travelled via social media and landed on the hoarding of (one of) our famous football club(s). You’re welcome L.F.C.
The full piece originally appeared in the Liverpool Biennial online journal ‘Stages’ #5 titled ‘Community Arts? Learning from the Legacy of Artists’ Social Initiatives’Read Less