The push and pull of place

In January 2019 a seminar was held in the library to reflect on the Finding Maindee project. The delegates and presenters were asked to question the role of the arts in ‘place-recognition.’ This blog by Aled Singleton breaks down that complicated question and looks at some of the themes that emerged.

 

On January 29th Maindee Unlimited held a seminar to reflect on the Finding Maindee project. The delegates and presenters were asked to question the role of the arts in ‘place-recognition.’ This blog article breaks that complicated question down and looks at the themes which emerged. The sequence of ideas is not necessarily the same order as they appeared on the day.

The term ‘place-recognition’ is relatively recent; indeed Ruth Essex - pictured above right and who curated the seminar - has only introduced this intriguing term at the very end of Finding Maindee. This blog article takes the chance to illustrate and join up ideas put forward at the seminar, for example: the importance of acceptance, sharing practice and how to build spaces of trust. We will also look at what the arts can do to achieve this, such as: to represent; use the magical ability of the artist to connect and also how art stir things up.

For this blog we are going to use the word ‘pull’ to equate with ‘place-recognition’ and the word ‘push’ to understand the direction of ‘place-making.’ With this basic kind of scale we can consider what different projects do to communities and places like Maindee. So what does it mean to be pushed towards place-making?

 

What is place-making?

John Hallam outlined how Finding Maindee pitched a ‘regeneration’ project to the Arts Council of Wales [ACW] in 2015. Once Maindee Unlimited’s ideas were developed and a budget of £0.5m was assembled they, like any agency with a regeneration project, could have been led by values and ideas from somewhere else. This blog will explain a little about what did happen and how the project has employed designers, architects and artists to develop ideas.

Xenia Moseley featured in the first debate of the day and has helped prize bingo return to Maindee. She explained how it sometimes took a ‘stranger’ like her to come in with a solution. Xenia therefore sees her role as a contradiction; and we will explore this later with ideas of how art stirring things up. So how high are the stakes [pun intended] when you are playing around with prize bingo? Maybe prize bingo is absolutely the thing which can make a place tick. Indeed Maindee Bingo [now the Wetherspoons] used to be one of the largest bingo halls in Newport and certainly drew people to Chepstow Road until it closed in 1994.

The above is a relatively localised example of an exchange between the ‘pull’ of a local demand for bingo and a ‘push’ given by an artist who develops it with imagination. When we push place-making to a grander scale, we can consider nearby Ebbw Vale with its £2m cable car, a one-sided clock and more - explained in Wales Online article. The Wales Online conclusion seems to be that Ebbw Vale was pushed to do things which were not locally relevant and also pretty expensive to maintain.

Consequently a lesson learnt from regeneration projects is that the funder can seem to be generous in their offer of money, but all to often they want to do such things as: push places upmarket; make them use a certain set of urban designers or find something unique - the latter seemingly an oxymoron. But can the recipient of such aid keep these new and unique things going? It seems that Blaenau Gwent Council cannot run the Ebbw Vale cable car in the evening or at the weekend. It was refreshing that John Hallam could explain how Maindee Library needs approximately £15,000 a year to pay for utilities, insurances, repairs and some administrative support. It is critical to note, however, that the Maindee model is based on volunteers running virtually all of the functions.

It is therefore important to understand the contract that you enter when you accept outside help; and ask if you can you keep negotiating as you go through the relationship? Huw Owen gave a really honest and refreshing account of working within the demands of the Big Lottery Fund for this Maindee blog in March 2017.  So, where we are going is to see ideas of ‘place-making’ as an element of higher bodies having power over - and in some ways infantilising - communities and small organisations. Different people at the seminar criticised local authorities - and also praised them - for their attitudes and responses to Austerity. Thankfully this seminar was able to report a healthy debate between Maindee and ACW; and was also able to criticise the way that ACW’s approach to evaluation has pushed projects such as Finding Maindee.

Maindee was treated to an evaluation approach which centres on ideas of ‘regeneration’ and ‘transformation’ and a ‘theory of change’; alongside the other six arts projects supported by ACW’s IPP programme. Eugene Dubens has been developing his PhD about these projects. At the seminar Eugene decried this ‘regeneration’ approach and argued that the artist and community are too often side-lined in such a process. Eugene advocates the power of the deep case study to really understand what is going on. Ruth Essex also outlined the importance of policy-makers coming to a debate such as this seminar - a proposal echoed by many others.

This blog article will lose readers if we go too far away from the central question here, but there did seem to be some promise amongst seminar attendees, such as Barbara Castle, that Wales is migrating from the measurable sense of Gross Domestic Product towards valuing wellbeing. And there does seem to be some space for debate - especially within the arts - to question what Eugene Dubens would call ‘power geometries.’ Indeed an interesting lead has been taken by Gentle Radical to explore the ‘colonising’ push of institutions such as the funder and sponsor.

 Having let go of the angst, we now move this blog article towards some of the interesting proposals which came through from both the panel debates and the audience.

 

Towards place-recognition: starting with acceptance of the place

 It may not seem obvious at first, but places like Maindee have underlying characteristics even if life may seem to be fluid. John recalled how architect Huw Owen described Maindee as a well-connected place in terms of its streets. This quality of place means that it has welcomed different people over the years; and this was best articulated by Angela Lloyd. Angela has lived here for sixty years; she described the range and number of languages spoken from when she was at school herself to her experience of working on the crossing patrol next to Maindee Primary. Angela said that Maindee had welcomed people and taught them how to speak English.

In many ways, the different elements of the Finding Maindee project have responded to the ‘pull’ of cultures and ways of being that have been set down by many decades of life in Maindee. What was important for George Lovesmith, the architect who led on the library refresh project, was to be open-minded and happy to learn - whenever that learning occurred. The work that George did for the project included trialling initiatives which did not eventually get implemented - such as the student project to research mobile kitchen. This quality of openness has been crucial to Finding Maindee. Chris Coppock, who managed the IPP project in Blaenau Gwent, spoke of the art of the possible.

 

Spaces of trust

 Part of what Chris Coppock was talking about includes obstacles to work with communities which are cloaked in language and complicated procedures. For example, we talk about the need for planning permissions, property deals and so on; people get lost in all of this. For this reason, John Hallam’s openness about the £15,000 running costs is crucial. People will ask themselves - can we do that? There were other examples cited, such as the Flatpack Democracy where a group of independents campaigned for election and took over From District Council. All of these ideas connect with the wider mission of the day: an effort to represent a place.

Maindee Library has gone from a Council-run branch library - closed in 2015 - to become a space of trust where different people can share their views and ideas. Eugene Dubens explained that the library space has been a success; for example with the New Paths Gatherings reported on by these blogs. Ruth Essex argued that lives had been changed in this building - and the volunteers would testify to that. Becky Harford, part of a group of volunteers who saved Rumney Library in Cardiff, explained that memories are held in places such as these. Becky shared that ‘community is something that happens; you will never really know why.’ As a concluding comment on places such as Maindee or Rumney: it is a risky game to transform such spaces such as libraries without really understanding their pull. We have to try many methods if we try to know - as Becky alludes.

The ability of the artists to get people talking is what Adam West [who we saw on a film about Coastal Housing in Swansea] explained as being different from his organisation’s desire to make shiny buildings. Guy Norman - who worked on the IPP project in Haverfordwest - was also filmed and said that it was important to admit to not knowing what you are doing. And these two observations are part of the reason why the artist can put themself between the push to change and pull to recognise a place. The following are some ideas about what art can do. 

 

What art can do?

 Fez Miah worked on the Finding Maindee project for three years and continues to contribute by connecting new people up and bringing them into the library - as he did with the New Paths Gatherings. Fez said that Finding Maindee had ‘stirred things’ up; the work to prepare the library was a kind of cushion and now was the time to let things settle. In another example, Mr and Mrs Clark led on a weeklong painting with neighbours project [October 2016] over the road by the toilets. From this latter exercise Maindee Unlimited gained a better understanding of what could happen with the space - something which was translated and taken on by architects KHBT.

That stirring up was also evident in a more gentle form through the UWE student project to develop the catering facilities and the subsequent Cardiff University student project to look at different types of shelving. We can also put some Finding Maindee projects into the category of representation, such as: Stephanie Roberts mosaics; Cheung’s Maindee Stories; Dilip Sinha’s photography From Summerhill to Fair Oaks; and the Nonsensus. The latter work was the brainchild of artist Steven George Jones and performed in part at the seminar.

 

Representation

Stuart Farnsworth carried out door-to-door surveys over the summer and autumn of 2017 , before transcribing the words into a book launched with Q&A at a New Paths Gathering in March 2018. This representation of the hopes and fears of so many of Maindee’s residents was described by Eugene Dubens as being ‘the voices’ with ‘very little mediation’ and being ‘completely unfiltered.’ Farnsworth found people of different ages; people of many religions and people at different stages of life. As such, some of the words from the Nonsensus were translated into an opera performance performed at the Tete a Tete festival in summer 2018.

As Steve Jones recalled the experience of doing the Nonsensus, he explained a situation where somebody followed the Farnsworth Factfinding Facilitation [FFF] data collector down the street. The FFF representative was asked questions about what the surveys were for - eventually ending up with the demand ‘what is your name?’ The FFF data collector answered ‘Stuart Farnsworth’ - to which the questioner said ‘that’s ok then’ and moved on.

In reality Stuart Farnsworth does not exist; and it is worth reading the March 2018 blog article to understand what it means for the artist to cross the fourth wall. There is a magic that the artist brings to a situation through the performance of whimsical characters such as Stuart Farnsworth. The value of this unknowable quality of the artist is to connect with people; and came up time and again in Finding Maindee. The magic was highlighted by experienced arts manager Sarah Goodey.

As such, there is a real value to all the emotions, memories and ideas brought together by Dilip, Marion, Steve and many others. The Nonsensus resource is a bank of stories which can be examined again in the future. The Nonsensus as a dataset also pushes gently at the assumption that you have to ask everybody the same question; and returns us to the debate about being pushed to do something which does not suit a specific location.

 

Conclusions

The seminar was a useful opportunity for many people to come into one space and to share their views and examples. Space is important and whole of the Finding Maindee project was about facilitating wider conversation and views [practising acceptance and an ability to trust] which ended up in the production of many materials [photos, the Nonsensus interviews, a tapestry and more] and only physical change [to Maindee Library] which would suit the normal sense of regeneration. That latter physical change was a process which was negotiated through an understanding of what was already valuable to people [the pull] and what they were prepared to explore for the future [the push].

The whole project therefore consists of many sub-projects which are somewhere on the scale of place-recognition. The artists, such as Mr & Mrs Clark or Stuart Farnsworth, have been crucial in allowing the wider Maindee movement to take different positions on that line of pushes and pulls. Like all of the other IPP projects supported by ACW, Maindee leaves a strong audit trail [for the purpose of evaluators] and is a good start in the future of place-recognition.

As a final note this blog has not included everything useful that was said. Firstly, it is worth noting Barbara Castle’s argument that we must take the local economy seriously as to pay a bit more in the short term is to get a better pay back over the future - something that John Hallam agreed with. Secondly, there was also a continued debate about representing diversity and inclusion. Thirdly, Alison Starling asked whether local responses to Austerity [and the retreat of local authorities] lets the state off and contributes to the wider problem. These are all things for future seminars and debates to consider in more detail.

 

Aled Singleton, Finding Maindee Project Manager January 2016 - July 2018

 

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