Thursday, 19 June 2008

Exhibition Opening

Tuesday night saw the opening of Raw Material at the Airspace Gallery, the final installment in the Place Space Identity Programme of 2007-2008 and closure to our work on the project. Thanks to all those who came, we truly appreciated your support and hope to see you again soon. Entertainment was provided by DJs Steve Boulton & James Moulden and friend and poet George Chopping. A big thanks also to Airspace's David Bethell, Andy Branscombe & Glen Stoker for all their help in putting the show together. Finally, we want to thank Susan and Hilary at B Arts for managing the programme and to Kathy James at Arts Council England West Midland for making it all happen. If you'd like to keep up to date with our other projects you can visit our website or simply get in touch. Thanks for watching!

A great time was had by all.

Sunday, 15 June 2008

The thinking behind our process

When asked by B Arts and Arts Council England to collate and edit the final book documenting the PSI programme, we came up with a list of questions we wanted to ask the artists involved. The purpose was to gain insight into their process and the themes that informed their work. As participants in the programme, it was only fair we asked ourselves those same questions and our responses are posted below. All artists' responses were printed on the reverse side of the Raw Material book poster jacket, and we'll also be publishing them here soon.

Can you tell us about your creative practice, your process, and what you produced for your PSI commission?

We work mainly with portrait and landscape photography. Our commission was to document and represent the PSI programme and to produce our own body of work responding to North Staffordshire. Producing our own series has been very different to the relatively straightforward process of documenting events. The former can be much more about communicating our own impressions of a place with some degree of poetic license.

Our process relies a great deal on the coincidences and accidents that result from wandering around and bumping into people and places. In those encounters, we’ll often share an intense if fleeting moment with the subjects of our photographs and aim to produce an image that reflects that encounter.

Left: Katie, "I want to be a hairdresser or something when I'm older. I'm into all that stuff."

What themes did you explore in researching and producing your work?
Initially, we believed the idea of ‘intervention’ was something that could hold our own work and our documentation of PSI activities together. It’s a term that can be used to describe the work of regeneration officers and artists in the public realm and we wondered if this could be represented in any way. We were also interested in the language used by them and that in each of the discourses lies this idea of a public. Artists, the public, and regeneration officers seemed like a good framework with which to structure the work. The more we talked to people and matched their stories to the landscape, the more the theme of fragility and rawness emerged. In the end, our work was really about matching the raw nature of the landscape with the emotional landscapes we were encountering.

How would you describe the identity of North Staffordshire and in particular that of the six towns?

Our views on the North Staffordshire landscape are that it shares the wounds and crises wrought on all post-industrial towns and cities. As the need to brand and market cities becomes prevalent, there’s this urge to find a unique selling point to a place. But working the way we do, almost every door we go through leads us into new cultural terrain which only highlights the complex identities of any one place. Any unique identity of the six towns we came across often seemed rooted in historical ideals or territorial mindsets rather than in anything we could directly see.

How have the social and physical landscapes of North Staffordshire influenced your work and your process?
Our immediate impressions of Stoke-on-Trent were of a landscape marked by countless open scars. To documentary photographers, this is well-trodden ground so we were conscious of trying to stay away from that and instead explore the idea of a fragile porcelain-like beauty; as visible in the personalities we met as in the landscapes we saw.

Are there any surprises or accidents that you've come across that have informed your work and your process?

There were two main surprises. In January 2008, we saw The Wizard of Oz at the New Vic Theatre in Newcastle under Lyme to photograph the characters on the theatre grounds. We were struck by the relevance of the story to regeneration and to the artistic process and had our own epiphany watching the epiphanies of the characters as their quest to reach the Emerald City results in an unexpected twist. Then, near the end of shooting in March, we visited Hanley Baptist Church by chance and met Trevor and Anne who somehow manage to feed scores of homeless people every Thursday evening. Talking to them and spending an evening with those who use the Church brought home an altogether different perspective on the significance of the scarred landscape.

When making artwork, who do you make it for?
Photography is such a universal medium that we would of course want our work to be read by all. But there are different languages of photography and we try to steer away from clich├ęs as much as we can. It was fascinating for example to watch photographers from the local newspaper setting up scenes with PSI artists and participants. It highlighted to us just how constructed the language of photography is and also how conservative it can be. In that context, we hope our work can stretch people’s understandings rather than reflect what they already know to reinforce stereotypes we rarely identify with.

Above: A local press photographer sets up a shot to represent the performance of CLAY at Burslem School of Art. By asking his subjects to hold up a slice of bread with a hole in it, he is creating a vignette-like effect that will frame the portrait. Well prepared, the photographer brought his own loaf of bread.

What role has the local community played in the production of your work?

To produce the kind of portraits we do relies on people opening their doors to us and welcoming us in. It never ceases to amaze us just how easy this is once we get over our own insecurities and fears for not making those approaches. To that extent, a community’s willingness to let us in determines whether any portraits are made and we were rarely refused that opportunity here.

How has your work been shown and what has been the public's reaction to it?

We kept a blog throughout the project which published interviews and photographs we did as we went along. Between October 2007 and April 2008, the site had 1,264 visitors from as far as New Zealand, India, Mexico, and Israel. Locally, we distributed as many portraits to those we photographed as we could and the reaction to that has been very positive.

An exhibition of the work also took place at the Airspace Gallery in Hanley in June 2008.

What life do you see this work having beyond the PSI programme?

We hope this body of work will form an important part of our collection of work in the North of England and that it can be seen in the UK and abroad at festivals, exhibitions and other contexts.

How has your practice benefited from this commission?

This commission has challenged our practice and ideas about what documentary should strive for. It has also helped clarify what side of the fence we feel we should be sitting on regarding documentary, as we have favoured the production of images and sequences that invite interpretation rather than restrict it. On another note, when you work on a project like this so intensively for six months, it lives with you every night and day and we have become more confident that with time and patience, order can emerge out of chaos and the resulting work will find its own rhythm.

Saturday, 14 June 2008

Exhibition set-up

We finally set the exhibition up at the Airspace gallery today and thanks to the hard work of Andy, David, Glenn and young trainee Ryan, it looks like it's going to be a great show. Running from the 16th June - 21st June, opening times 11am-5pm. For more information, call 01782 261221.

Friday, 13 June 2008

Update & Exhibition launch

For the past couple of months we've been frantically putting the book and exhibition together for all of this work, which has meant the blog has been neglected since the last entry. As the project comes to an end, we aim to continue adding entries as a way of sharing the process of how we produced the book and final exhibition.

In the meantime, as I write this Liz is downstairs cutting and dusting prints, framing them and making other preparations for our trip to Airspace today to put the exhibition together. The launch is on Tuesday 17th June and we hope to see you there.

Friday, 6 June 2008

Book Launch

100 copies of Raw Material have finally arrived, just in time for the launch on Monday the 9th June at Hanley Park.

The book is protected by a poster wrap containing all the PSI artists' interviews on one side and on the other an enlargement of a plate design donated to us by Spode, depicting a scene of rural arcadia that seems perfectly fitting to the project. The book has an exposed spine and has the title 'Raw Material' debossed on the front. Inside are three sections. The first presents our body of work produced in response to the Stoke landscape and inhabitants and has a running motif of vulnerability, faith and role-play throughout. The aim of this is to contextualise the physical and cultural environment in which the artists were working, whose documentation of their work follows the following second section. Finally the book closes off with a third section voicing the positive and negative personal experiences of regeneration officers working in this area and those of young children whose lives have been affected by changes to their physical environment.

[Update - 9 June 2008] The launch of Raw Material on a bright and sunny day at Hanley Park, and great to catch up with Phoebe Cummings, Louise Wood, Tom Wichelow, Gavin Peacock, Brian McClave, Roger Brown, Rachel Grant, B Arts, Kathy James, members of CLAY and the Airspace crew, David and Andy.

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Book printing

Raw Material, a book combining our own body of photographic work with documentation of the PSI programme and a section on Regeneration officers, their work and those affected by it, has being designed by Music in Manchester. Special thanks to Anthony who's put so much care and attention to the design of the book and to Matt (Music's production maestro) - they've been a pleasure to work with.

Publish PostHighlight printers in Warrington check proofs for colour variations across the separate paper stocks.

We've been working on the book solidly for the past few weeks, deciding on the edit, text and how to integrate such separate bodies of work into one cohesive whole. Coming across a William Morris speech given in Burslem over 120 years ago has resulted in a seamless link from artists to regeneration. In Art and the Beauty of the Earth, Morris states:

Of all the things that is likely to give us back popular art in England, the cleaning of England is the first and most necessary. Those who are to make beautiful things must live in a beautiful place. Some people may be inclined to say, and I have heard the argument put forward, that the very opposition between the serenity and purity of art and the turmoil and squalor of a great modern city stimulates the invention of artists, and produces special life in the art of today. I cannot believe it. It seems to me that at best it but stimulates the feverish and dreamy qualities that throw some artists out of the general sympathy. But apart from that, these are men who are stuffed with memories of more romantic days and pleasanter lands, and it is on these memories they live, to my mind not altogether happily for their art [.]

I abide by my statement that those who are to make beautiful things must live in beautiful places, but you must understand I do not mean to claim for all craftsmen a share of those gardens of the world, or of those sublime and awe-inspiring mountains and wastes that men make pilgrimages to see[.]

For surely there is no square mile of earth's inhabitable surface that is not beautiful in its own way, if we men will only abstain from wilfully destroying that beauty; and it is this reasonable share in the beauty of the earth that I claim as the right of every man who will earn it by due labour; a decent house with decent surroundings for every honest and industrious family; that is the claim which I make of you in the name of art.

William Morris

13 October 1881 before the Wedgewood Institute at the Town Hall, Burslem

Thursday, 3 April 2008

The last pictures

Fittingly, this is the last photograph we took in Stoke as part of this project, shot earlier this afternoon. It is of a burnt-out camera found on the remains of an outdoor fire behind rows of terraced houses being knocked down in Hanley. From now until the publication of a book and exhibition, all efforts will be on the daunting task of editing images taken over the course of the past six months into shape and working on production.

Earlier in the day, we'd visited the North Staffordshire Afro-Caribbean Association where amongst others, we photographed the following portraits and details.

Monday, 25 February 2008

The Greatest Show On Earth

Last week we attended workshops being run by Phoebe Cummings in Burslem as part of her Greatest Show on Earth project. The exhibition will include clay works produced by the children, displayed at the Etruria Industrial Museum on Thursday 28th February from 2-4pm. More details available from here.

Above: Sculptures produced by the children to represent their ideal homes.

Friday, 15 February 2008

Interview with Dinu Li

DL - Dinu Li
MH - Mishka Henner

MH: Could you tell us about the film you're working on and how you chose your actress?

There were over 500 people who responded to the call out for an actress because they were attracted to this Dangerous Liaison theme. I think they thought it would be this huge Hollywood film I was making. But the reason why I am interested in Dangerous Liaisons is because in the opening and the end of the film we see the main character putting on and taking off her make-up and for me that is the essence of change. When you put your make-up on you become something else and whe you take your make-up off you again you become this different person, so that is what I am trying to recreate.

What I asked for were people who had rosy complexions and classic features. I also wanted people who are quite local. For me Rachel just has this look without having to try very hard. She already is very interesting to look at. And I think Rachel has a presence that the others don't so that will be very useful later.

You will eventually see all these interiors but shot in timelapse. You'll just see the light passing through. this is from upstairs but it's not good to be there, I've become ill coz it's so dusty. If you spend ten minutes your skin starts to itch because of the asbestos and lots of dead pigeons everywhere and pigeon shit. There are essentially three different centuries going on; the 18th, 19th, and 20th century. I'm leaving the 21st century out, I'm not describing it.

MH: How did you find this location?

DL: Once I knew I was doing the commission I came here and started talkng to lots of local people and Peter was the one actually, Peta Murphy Burke kept going on about this place and I just wanted to be sure so I looked at lots of other places and filmed some others. Local historian Fred Hughes has also been very helpful. Once I got stuck into this things started to grow on me because of the wallpaper. I also like the light and shadow of this space.

MH: How important is the timelapse element of this piece?

It's hugely important because that is what the commission is about. It's about the changing of places and people and so when you think about even the title 'timelapse' it's just so relevant.

Dinu will be showing his film, looking at the passing of light and the changes that take place in time and space, on Monday 17th March 2008 at the Film Theatre, Flaxman Building, Staffordshire University, College Road, Stoke-on-Trent, ST4 2EF. Complimentary drinks and snacks will be available from 6.30pm, with the main presentation and Q&A session starting at 7pm.

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Scars on the Landscape

"Most studies of ruins have concentrated on the noble piles of classical antiquity, scenes of rural quaintness or the fake ruins installed in English country estates. Yet the 20th century has produced more ruins than ever before, whether through warfare or as a remorseless, short term-oriented capitalism turns solid things and places into air, rendering the contents and activities housed within industrial buildings instantaneously obsolete. In Britain, at the end of the 1970’s and through the eighties, the government of Margaret Thatcher allowed ‘market forces’ full reign, promoting an orgy of real estate speculation which produced a reconstructed industrial landscape. But not everywhere was able to capitalise on this economic reconstruction and in many areas, as old industries died, the buildings that housed them lay dormant and empty. This process persists and the material legacy of the industrial revolution, in the form of ruins, can still be found in most British cities.

These ruins are largely understood – especially by bureaucrats, city promoters and planners - as offensive to the character and aesthetics of the city. The sooner these scars on the landscape are demolished and swept away, effaced in the name of civic order, the better. They are matter out of place, a continuing rebuke to attempts to render urban space productive, smooth and regular. Imagined as sites of urban disorder, dens into which deviant characters – drug-users, gang-members, vandals and the homeless – are drawn, the imperative is to extinguish their decaying features from the urban backdrop." Tim Edensor, found here.

Thursday, 7 February 2008

CLAY performance

On Tuesday night, we attended the opening of 'Clay' by B Arts, a site specific piece of theatre performed first inside Burslem School of Art before moving on to the disused Acme Marls site at Bournes Bank. Susan Clarke, Director of B Arts, described the show as "being about making a community. In the process of making the show we've made a little tribe who stick together and look after each other. The song we sing during the show means 'People make us who we are,' which we think is one of the key messages that gets lost amongst everything else that everyone seems to be worrying about." The performers and crew were made up of professional artists, emerging or early career artists, refugees and local residents.

Find out more about B Arts here.

Monday, 4 February 2008

Interviews with four CLAY participants

LL - Liz Lock
MH - Mishka Henner

Ben, 28
Ben: In anything to do with creative practice, everyone can feel that something good's happening to the city. From music to the arts, theatre, films, people are actually going, "hey, this is good." Whereas before my mum would've said, "why don't you go to Liverpool, why not Manchester? There's loads happening there." Well, I want to be here when it kicks off and I think it's going to happen.
MH: How would you describe what's happening here?
Ben: I'm excited about it and would describe it as having a ticket to go on a roller coaster, but I don't know where it's going. It feels like we're going up that uphill incline, it's that kind of excitement. It might be over dead quick, it might be long.
MH: Do you think the landscape of Stoke has anything to do with that?
Ben: The fact that it's six towns is one of the reasons why I've stayed here. But I also think it's stunted the chance of this place going ballistic in terms of the arts. I feel it's where Manchester was 20 years ago in terms of employment levels, aspirations, opportunities. And out of that you get really gritty poets, songwriters, bands and artists.
MH: How would you describe the work that people are producing here?
Ben: There's two ends to it, you've got the uplifting, positive promotion of good things happening here which is exactly what this play is all about, then there's people who sing about the glum streets of Burslem with no future. But it has got a future, it's just about finding those juicy tangible bits that people can get their teeth into.
MH: What are those tangibles?
Ben: The city has a tendency to hemorrhage talent. People will come in, get skilled up, then leave for Manchester or Birmingham. For the people who actually live here, having grown up on these streets with parents who worked down the pot banks, there's that cycle of never asking for stuff or expecting anything, never striving for stuff. And that's starting to change with the people living here. They're starting to come around now, saying "well actually, Manchester's got this, we want this. Birmingham's got this, we want this. Let's not have it all in London, we want this."
MH: What is that thing that people want?
Ben: I think they're proud of where they live, but they want to be able to be proud today of where they're from. I think it's a sense of pride and also, they just want someone to say, "it's okay." They want to be able to say, "this is what I want."

Binyam (Jordan), 17. From Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Jordan: I play basketball and they call me Jordan so I like to be called that. I live in Hanley. I've only been in the UK for six months. Before I was in Ethiopia. There it's ten months sunshine and two months rain. Here it's the other way around.
MH: What's Stoke like compared to Ethiopia? It must be very different.
Jordan: It's colder here than in Ethiopia! But in Ethiopia right now, everything is changing. There is this thing now that they are building called a condominium. There's a lot of building happening everywhere you look. They used to be a poor country but now they are developing.
MH: Are people different here to your home country?
Jordan: There is something here which I find hard to believe. If you see an eleven year old girl with a boyfriend, I don't appreciate that. It's not the time to think about boyfriends at that age. In my country, you have to get a boyfriend or girlfriend after 18. You can have a chat, but not sex. The main reason I think you have this problem here is because it's a rich country, and the families never control their children.
MH: How do you know that England is a rich country?
Binyam: If you go to London or Manchester, you see a lot of things that you know make people rich. Like cars, or buildings, even the money is much higher here than everywhere else in the world.

Imar, 17. From Ghazni, Afghanistan

MH: How different is Stoke to Afghanistan?
Imar: Really different actually.
MH: Really!
: The houses, the cars, people.
MH: How are people here?
: The people are friendly here, everything's cool.
MH: How's the food here?
: Lots of sandwiches, salad, and kebabs. In Afghanistan we have a lot of meat, and kebabs, with really good rice.
MH: What are the houses like in Afghanistan?
: Really different, in Afghanistan people make the houses with their hands. Here they're made by machines and very stylish. There's no stylish in Afghanistan.
LL: Have you been to other places in England?
: I've been to Bimingham and Manchester. There are lots of big buildings and shopping complexes in those cities, lots of crowds and people, it's quite different.
MH: What do you do in the evenings here?
: Sometimes I go out but not very often. I need permission from my father or brother to go out. In Afghanistan it's a free country I can go out at anytime. But here if you don't speak good English people want to fight with you.

Omran, 17. From Balochistan, Iran

Omran: Everything is different here. The weather, city centre, people, everything.
MH: What are the main differences?
Omran: Everything!
LL: Is anything the same?
Omran: No, I don't think so.
MH: What about the food?
Omran: It's very good here.
MH: I don't believe you!
Omran: Here all the food is in freezers. In Iran you could buy fresh, that's different.
MH: What do you like to eat here?
Omran: I like the chips. They're ready made, you just put them in the oven and they're ready. You don't have to chop everything up like in Iran.
MH: What are people like here?
Omran: People are very good, when you talk to them they're very nice.
MH: Did you ever do anything artistic in Iran?
Omran: No, nothing at all. I like the dancing here, I love the dancing.
LL: What do you think of the landscape here? How is housing different to Iran?
Omran: Here they are all next to each other. In Iran one house is here and another one over there.
MH: Do you like that people here go out a lot?
Omran: Here people can drink alcohol because they get enough money to buy that. They get paid every day but in Iran people don't get paid for months so they can't go outside until they get paid so they have to go home and alcohol is very expensive there.