16. Meshwork Worcester

2011–2013 Arts Council England Lottery funded partnership with Worcester City Council, and in collaboration with Rob Colbourne and Stuart Mugridge.

“…the comparative limitations of local enabling infrastructures and inward investment mean that improvisation and thrift, make-do and mend and the amplificatory potential of strategic alliance have long since been the necessary tools of art practice that is consciously progressive and internationally extensive in its engagements.  Hitherto arguably the creative bi-product of economic and cultural inequity – of the particular conditions in which artists and art survive in contexts other than those of the main urban centres  – such approaches, ironically, now seem set to become the ubiquitous modus operandi of our times.

Two artists recently brought to my attention social anthropologist Tim Ingold’s new book… The artists are interested in developing a kind of ‘mass exploration’…as a means of understanding what might fruitfully be the practices of ‘public art’ in the processes of a city’s becoming. They proposed public art as inhabitant study of the cumulative inhabiting that constitutes the city itself – as a collective project of following what is going on.”

– Professor Antonia Payne, University of Worcester, 2011

2011-2013 Meshwork Worcester

2013 Cornmarket, Worcester

2013 St Clements Gate, Worcester

A. What is the project?

Meshwork Worcester is an artist-led initiative [1] in partnership with the Heritage & Design Team at Worcester City Council. It has received R&D funding from Arts Council England and is a national case study for ixia [2], the public art think tank for England and one of the key propagandists for getting ‘culture’ included in the NPPF.

B. How did it start?

Meshwork Worcester grew out of a year long discussion [3] between three artists centred on social anthropologist Tim Ingold’s notion of ‘taskscape’ (“…a convergence of lines of interest rather than a bounded field of study”) [4]. It seemed to us that ‘taskscape’ provided useful guidance on how we should be approaching the various city-building projects we were working on individually and/or collectively. As artists, our work is within design team collaboration (with architects and other design professionals) rather than in the production of lumps of art. From Ingold’s work we were able to identify a set of principles [5] that seem to offer a better way of working, albeit a way of working that ran counter to the testosterone-fuelled machinations that drive most design teams. Consequently we looked for somewhere to test out our ‘taskscape’ principles, and ended up in Worcester.

C. Why Worcester?

By chance, really. We sketched a map of the West Midlands, and asked ‘why not Worcester’.  It was a good decision, not only did we discover immediate rapport with Jim Blackwell, the Senior Urban Design Planning Officer, and the City Council’s Heritage & Design Team, but Worcester itself is a bit of a gift to artists interested in taskscape. For many centuries, the city has attracted that interesting play between artist and artisan because of its cathedral and, until very recently, its various porcelain factories. More on this later. Also, in 2010/2011, Worcester produced a Master Plan [6] which included statements on public art, public realm and the role of culture in the city’s future. All of this needed unpicking and reframing.

D. So what have you been doing?

Our initial focus (October 2011 to May 2012) was to produce new public art guidance (and for this to be both vision-led and appropriate to NPPF and cultural well-being), to look closely at four large chunks of the city centre (via walking, talking and drawing), and to explore the possibilities for a new East/West axis connecting across the city (Worcester tends to be orientated North/South because of the River Severn). Throughout this first phase we also maintained an on-line ‘sketchbook’ (in the form of a limited audience blog) that more closely resembles Ingold’s “convergence of lines of interest rather than a bounded field of study”.

E. What about NPPF and ‘cultural well-being’?

One of the very useful things that NPPF has encouraged is the re-framing of public art in terms of ‘cultural well-being’. This should be applauded. Our work has always been based on the idea that “(t)he point is not just to produce another thing for people to admire, but to create opportunities, situations that enable viewers to look back at the world with unique perspectives and clear angles of vision. … Public art is a sign of life” [7]

We are, though, somewhat dismissive of how NPPF associates ‘cultural well-being’ with the provision of built infrastructure (museums, theatres, etc.). And we are equally dismissive of recent advice to Arts Council on the implications of new Planning arrangements going forward [8].

We don’t have a tidy definition of ‘cultural well-being’. We probably tend towards Raymond Williams’ ‘Culture is Ordinary’, but to try and get something workable we have recently been building some understanding of Amartya Sen’s notion of ‘functionings’ and how, in terms of the work in Worcester, this gives us an operating definition of “social and political functionings in addition to intellectual and aesthetic functionings” [9]. These ‘social and political functionings’ are particularly important at a time of local authority contraction, economic slowdown/forced impetus, and deregulation (in which regeneration is divorced from the idea of revitalisation…aka well-being).

F. So how are you dealing with NPPF?

One of the things we are doing is establishing something called (working title) ‘PlaceLab’ in the City Council’s formal Planning process. Essentially this is intended to do for ‘cultural well-being’ what Design Review [10] did for quality of design in the built environment following publication of the Urban White Paper in 2000. It’s a big idea aimed at the ‘institutional’ side of things to balance what we hope to achieve in terms of the ‘intrinsic’ and the ‘instrumental’.

G. The work that artists do!

As noted above, Worcester has been shaped by artists for centuries, and some of our work to-date has been about identifying local precedents for what we have identified as ‘City Artist’. We are currently working with four local precedents which are worth spelling out to give a bit of flavour. The four are:

# a painter and a sculptor, fifty years apart, who began as apprentices in the porcelain industry.  The sculptor, in particular, became one of England’s greatest artists and shaped both the language of sculpture and initiated new sorts of infrastructure to support arts practice. There is also something fundamentally important in how Worcester’s porcelain production connects to notions of cultural well-being, and this has something to do with what Richard Binns (one time director of Royal Worcester) said about the work of artists providing “fresh graces to ten thousand smiling homes.”

# a sculptor who set up studio in Worcester in the mid-19th century, and, for the next fifty years, embedded art in the lives of the city’s residents (grave markers for the poor, monuments to the powerful and wealthy, etc.) and enriched the city’s built environment (what we see today) through his numerous collaborations with various architects and builders. This sculptor reminds us of the importance of building relationship to place over time, and, from this, the importance of duration to any understanding of cultural well-being. Worth noting also that we are currently using this sculptor’s work on Worcester buildings and churches in two ways: to develop a new wayfaring strategy using handheld digital technology, and to support interpretation of Worcester’s listed buildings (of which there are over 1000).

# an artist who was part of a 1940s University of Birmingham research team commissioned to inform Worcester’s post-War redevelopment. This artist was nothing if not evangelical about Lewis Mumford’s ‘The Culture of Cities’ (first published in England in 1940), and had high hopes that Worcester would align itself to Mumford’s vision. Of course he failed, but what a glorious failure. By our assessment, this artist was the first (in Modern times) to engage with town planning at a strategic level, and along the way he made some extraordinary connections (like the relationship between ‘Fish-and-Chip Shops, Milk Bars, and Garages’). We have access to this artist’s original work and are keen to exhibit it (it has never been shown).

H. Can you explain that duration and cultural well-being thing?

Artists tend to be nomadic, and go from place to place [11] to realise their work. This has certainly been true during the recent period of city regeneration, and is why every city must now have its Gormley sculpture, or whatever. But the notion of ‘taskscape’ (and, therefore, the nature of Meshwork Worcester) is to stay put, to remain ‘local’, to explore distinctiveness of ‘place’ over ‘time’ via the ‘intervening and weaving’ and the ‘wayfaring and uncertain’. Think we’d all probably agree that cultural well-being doesn’t come off the shelf, ready packaged and nicely presented, but is, instead, found in our engagements with the world…over time and in place. It is also as much to do with the DIY as it is to do with anything that comes via formal enabling (including Planning). So, to steal somebody else’s comment, Meshwork Worcester recognises that “economic, social, political, intellectual and aesthetic factors are of interest…only to the extent that they constitute different dimensions of the same basic notion of well-being” [9].

I. Going Forward

Arts Council is currently assessing our bid for next stage funding, and we expect to get the decision on this towards the end of the month. Not getting Arts Council funding won’t be a show stopper, it just means we will continue to work in an ad hoc fashion supported by other income streams (including Planning gain). The importance of securing further Arts Council support is in their buy-in to what we are doing, and how we can help inform arts policy going forward (particularly in articulating the relationship between what artists do and cultural well-being in formal Planning terms). Our next two years in Worcester will establish PlaceLab and City Artist, will continue the drawing/town planning activities with officers, will identify new friends and allies along the way, and will generate incidental publications, events and exhibitions as we build evidence.

J. Anything Else?

You asked about other projects and activities linked to NPPF. I’m sure there’s plenty going on, but, for the moment, it is mostly under the radar and probably won’t become noticeable until NPPF settles down in March 2013. One project we are aware of is ‘The Manual’ Public Art Strategy for Knowle West.  This was commissioned by Bristol City Council and pulled together by General Public Agency. We are somewhat worried that this document might set a precedent for responding to NPPF. Our concern is that, in following legal advice, it limits cultural well-being to what is already stated in the existing Planning policy context (working down from the Local Plan, 2004). We think there must be a better way!  ou will also be aware, I’m sure, of the recent announcements by ixia and Ian Dove QC [12].

NOTES:

1.  Meshwork Worcester Artists

David Patten, Rob Colbourne, Stuart Mugridge

2. Contact details for ixia

http://www.ixia-info.com

3. Taskscape

http://taskscape.wordpress.com/

4. Tim Ingold: ‘Resisting Culture, Embracing Life’, 2010

5. Taskscape Principles

• interlocking and embedded, continuous and seamless / rather than classified or discrete

• forward reading / rather than backward reading of creativity and design intention

• intervening and weaving / rather than imposing

• itinerant, improvisatory and rhythmic / rather than forcing closure

• wayfaring and uncertain / rather than going straight to the point

• being alive / rather than just being in the world.

6. ‘Bold Worcester’ Master Plan

http://www.worcester.gov.uk/index.php?id=2520

7. Patricia Phillips: ‘Public Art – The New Agenda’, University of Westminster, 1993

8. Martin J. Elson’s advice to Arts Council England, ‘The Community Infrastructure Levy’, April 2012

9. Prasanta K. Pattanaik: ‘Cultural Indicators of Well-Being’, UNESCO/UNRISD, 1997

10. http://www.architectsjournal.co.uk/home/urban-white-paper-boosts-cabe/194231.article

11. Miwon Kwon: ‘One Place After Another’ (first published in October 80, Spring 1997)

12. http://ixia-info.com/events/next-events/

PDF: ixia Cultural Well-Being 2013

PDF: ixia Cultural Well-Being 2014 (unpublished)

PDF: 2011 | ixia Longview List

PDF: 2011 | ixia Longview

PDF: Different Approaches 2016

PDF: Thomas Brock | Convergence 2011

PDF: Cultural Wayfaring 2012

PDF: ScreenHouse | ReActivation 2012

LINK: Meshwork Worcester Sketchbook

PDF: 2010–2011 Taskscape

PlaceLab: In TEN Statements | Meshwork Worcester 25.06.2012

1. PlaceLab has two functions in the formal Planning process: A. it responds to Planning applications at key points in the Planning cycle on the issues of ‘cultural well-being’ as identified in NPPF; and, B. leads related ‘research/debate/guidance/education’ through events, social and printed media, etc..

2. it will comprise three groups of people: A. WCC officers; B. communities of interest; and C. artists (in the broadest sense), cultural planners, etc..

3. nominating people to these categories won’t be based simply on a person’s designated occupation (i.e. what’s on their passport…plumber, hairdresser, etc.) but will be determined by their ‘indigenous’ commitment to Worcester (as ‘place’ / as ‘extraordinary city’).

4. included in the ‘artists’ group is the role of ‘City Artist’, and this can be best understood as a sub-function of group C. As a sub-function of C, the ‘City Artist’ role can be shared across different people, functions as a formal consultee for Planning matters (in partnership with WCC officers), and can (on behalf of PlaceLab) commission new work (including research and including S106 expenditure). The ‘City Artist’ also forms ‘horizontal’ connections with fellow travellers (i.e. Neighbourhood Groups, Civic Society, ixia, MADE, etc.) without the need for these fellow travellers to become formal members of PlaceLab.

5. in broad terms, the three groups that make up PlaceLab could each comprise up to ten people acting as a bank of skills and knowledge that can be drawn on as and when necessary. Ideally, no more than four from each group would meet as a PlaceLab at any one time.

6. PlaceLab informs (knowledge and opinion) the City Council Officer Group cross-working party and the political decision making by the Place Lab Panel (Councillors) via formal report at fixed points throughout the year.

7. PlaceLab will operate (but not be limited to) a rolling three-year programme based on the four development areas (Cathedral Square, St Clement’s Gate, Cornmarket, Shrub Hill) plus the overall shared ambition for improved East/West links.

8. beyond the parameters outlined in point 7, PlaceLab can also respond to other initiatives (e.g. Porcelain Works) as and when development opportunities arise.

9. membership of PlaceLab will be by invitation from the City Mayor, and be for two years with the option of a one year extension in exceptional circumstances. The first intake of members, though, will be in place (no pun intended) for an initial three year period to allow early agreement, set up and initial delivery of the first three year programme.

10. PlaceLab will (in partnership with the University and other providers) also promote education and training programmes for communities of interest and locally resident artists/designers, and, where possible and appropriate, secure infrastructure (studios, etc.) and study/employment opportunities to support the next generation of Worcester’s artists, designers and cultural agents.