A guest text by Richard Houguez on the first of Nottingham's Wasteland Conversations: Making Place
On reflection, it was fortunate it was to be a sunny day – land always seems to shimmer with possibilities in this kind of light. But hold back that word, u-t-o-p-i-a, first something can be heard. We trod grass a little while, moving between the shadows of the BioCity buildings, along the wore-in desire lines littered with beer cans and wildflower alike. For sure there was activity everywhere, Rebecca, David and Mat had been monitoring and observing. The question on every blade of grass; waste where? Whose waste? The naming of waste had come from elsewhere.
A small group of people huddled together, invited to gather on the Island, an area of presently undeveloped land previously belonging to Boots, who produced both chemicals and financial investments in the surroundings. The land was brought by the council in the 1990’s, cleared up and sat on. The place-making, they say, begins with a name. When a place falls into disorientation, there’s a race to find it's name, between those who would brand it the Creative Quarter, and those who attempt to listen.
The Island suggests it was something of a loci, a meeting of canals, roads, rail, factories, people, memories. In the history of Nottingham, it has seen and supported activity that’s less visible now, but perhaps can still be heard. There’s also the circulation that happens around this place, and discreet users. A child orbits in a car, looking out the window and dreams of a football pitch, the good game, the game that cannot be.
The Wasteland Conversations
Elaine Speight, Ferdiansyah Thajib and Alan Boldon were invited to take part in the first of three Wasteland Conversations, chaired by Mathew Trivett. The topic was 'Making Place and Contemporary Art practice'. Along with myself and Wasteland Twinning Nottingham, the discussants had spent the afternoon on the site; and the discussion orientated around themes that had arisen earlier in the day: questions of art and urban strategies; cultural capital and positions on the processes of place-making; agency; hierarchies; affects; differing time scales; parallel ecologies; monuments and master plans vs emergent design – the trails of thought were richly lucid and overlapping but also quite exacting, perhaps due to their grounding in this geographic locality.
Each speaker introduced their practices within contemporary art and their own approach to place, both as a term and as a site of intervention or learning. Elaine Speight works as a curator and within public art policy and urban renewal. She's one of the people behind In Certain Places - an eight year old project that has been unravelling in the Lancashire city of Preston, in what she described as a situation of urban strategy on-hold – a temporary freeze in the masterplan due to investors' cold feet. It was within this space that her projects were able to develop themselves in relation to their place – including The Preston Market Mystery Project by John Newling, whose exhibition was being shown at Nottingham Contemporary at the time of the talk.
In September 2012, the Nottingham Island site was twinned with a wasteland in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, with the project Bon Suwung (meaning 'Blank Garden'). One of the discussants Ferdiansyah Thajib is the co-director of KUNCI – a cultural studies organisation in Indonesia, and is involved with the Island's wasteland. This performs a different function to the Nottingham site as it hosts 40 families who live without legal documentation. Ferdi began by illustrating the difference between what he called the 'Bird's-eye view' and the 'Frog's-eye view' of urban space – the former referring to the place seen from above and conforming to the traditional top-down urban strategists perspective; latter to bottom-up perspectives often adopted by the community/activist/artist, and which emerges from the use and processes of the place. Given this, it was interesting that Alan Boldon was introduced as someone who might be seen to adopt the Birds'-eye view, but perhaps this can only be said in a peripheral sense. He situates himself in-between bodies of governance and investment, acting as a consultant for ecological place-making. He brought together multiple partners to pilot an educational model, including the MA in Arts and Ecology at Dartington. He also mentioned a site earmarked for development in Bristol, for which he advised incremental planning interventions whilst allowing a plan for the rest of the site to emerge over a period of time in response to the emergent practices creating their own sense of place.
But how does art practice engage in place, or what is even being spoken of as place? Elaine pointed towards Tim Cresswell's oft-used quote that place is 'a word wrapped in common sense.' Revealing then becomes a sensitive and sensible approach to understanding where the art practice is situated. Alan referred to a gestalt psychotherapy, arguing that identity is formed at the 'contact barrier', or the encounter. If place is a collision of inter-relationships, and something immersed in history; then it is also a mutual thing, or a thing in common. Yet revealing the identity of a place can also reveal processes or intentions that aren't in the common interests of the place. For example, at the Anchor & Magnet event The Brixton Exchange a few weeks prior, a local historian drew on the example of the failed strategy of the Elephant shopping centre, claiming that the 'Shopping Centre' of Elephant & Castle remained the Walworth Road, which is rooted in history and social relations.
This question of strategy then becomes interesting once a place begins to reveal itself. Things become known. Earlier in the day David and Rebecca had spoken of 'amplification', and this is something Ferdi elaborated on with reference to the process of portraiture he carried out on the Bon Suwung wasteland in Yogyakarta. As previously noted, this place hosts numerous families, each of whom was invited to be photographed in their favourite place. This act became a process of revealing and archiving their lives, stories, and their sense of place. Because of the precarious nature of their living situation within the city, it is likely they will experience eviction and displacement, but it is hoped that amplifying their 'Frogs-eye view' might help re-establish mutual connections and social relations elsewhere in the city.
Edging back closer towards that oft-whispered word, used so hesitantly at the start – the question of how good places are made, designed, or imagined was raised. And more specifically it was asked what artistic practice could contribute (if anything) to this goal. Alan observed how architects often don't make a good place but rather create good objects and drop them into space. While this isn't always true, it does re-enforce the idea of a place being made of multiple relationships with its own idiosyncrasies, something Elaine pointed to with reference to the community architecture movement. There was, however, a wariness in the room of how art practice has been instrumental – particularly during New Labour's kick starting of post-industrial city economies and as a result of constraints imposed by funding bodies . Further questions need asking here too: how long can a project can exist for? And what can be achieved in that time? Perhaps interventions need to remain temporary and symbolic – something that had been well articulated during The Brixton Exchange by the curator Sarah Tuck, who discussed 'supplemental imaginary vs. radical imaginary'.
Finally – with eagerness and enthusiasm – the shimmering word, utopia framed questions. What could this place become, through a process of revealing, and amplification, of empowered discreet users? The city's emergency services enacted a bio-chemical hazard attack response on the site – clearly it could go in many directions; but does it have suggestions of its own? The fenceless perimeter allows the drinkers and joggers to imagine it functioning as a commons and – as David pointed out – it could clearly be many things, but maybe the question should be recalibrated: why isn't it these things? This question begins to illuminate the other invisible relations that the land is laced with, something articulated through the Rights to the City discourse. However discreet jogging might be, it's still a refusal of the Island's private ownership. There are, then, no easy answers to questions about how artists, activists, historians, and others should be involved in the co-creation of place. Clearly those concerned with the frog's-eye view and the respectful continuation or (re)production of place require sensitivity to the identity and trajectory of the place, but also of how the structures and models of cultural production/artistic practices are subject to (often external) agendas and pressures. Thus Ferdi offers the question: are artists creating creative capital when they engage with an undeveloped site? And as David put it to the panel towards the end of discussion, how can this kind of practice avoid being an ameliorative process that creates images of community, collectivity and empowerment when – in reality – austerity further reduces our ability to reproduce space, collectively organise and imagine other possibilities. Perhaps Elaine's term - 'Place-listening' - offers a more meaningful strategy than 'Place Making'.