A Design for Learning

By Kenn Taylor

Youth Studio in Wellcome Collection

Youth Studio in Wellcome Collection

The architecture of learning spaces within cultural institutions has followed a similar trajectory to learning as a whole within them. Even ten or fifteen years ago, education was frequently viewed as something marginal and add-on, to be fitted in wherever space was available, as long as it wasn’t intrusive and didn’t affect the ‘core’ work of the organisation. Inevitably, this meant that the spaces provided for education were equally marginal. If any dedicated facilities were available at all, it was often in unwanted rooms hidden far away from main areas and usually fitted out in an ad hoc way. Places unloved except perhaps by those who used them as participants or practitioners.

This really began to shift with the plethora of new cultural institutions that opened in the New Labour era. One of my previous employers, FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology) has a renowned education and engagement programme. Yet when it opened its brand-new permanent site in Liverpool in 2003, arguably the first in the UK to have given deep consideration in its design for displaying media art, dedicated spaces for learning programmes were not envisaged. Consequently learning activity had to be creatively undertaken in whatever space was available, be it computer labs, reception areas or within gallery and foyer space. While this to an extent prevented the ‘ghettoisation’ of education, having to use such spaces around wider programming and commercial imperatives inevitably reduced the flexibility and scale of what could be achieved.

While FACT didn’t have a dedicated education area when it was built, it did however contain a flat for visiting international artists – since removed for office space. This highlights perhaps the shifting perception of what the priorities of a cultural institution should be in the relatively short period of the 2000s. As more and more arts centres of various forms opened during this time in more diverse and deprived areas, increasingly they had to prove their worth beyond narrow circles of existing interest and any potential impact from creating a new ‘signature’ building.

Now in an era of harsher scrutiny, there has been a shift in focus from supporting artists and their work to that of engaging the public with art. Today it would be largely unthinkable to open a new publicly-funded cultural facility without providing a learning programme and space allocated for it. In the current climate for funding, this space may be small and learning staff may have several other functions, but in most cases education and engagement is now part of the core mission statement the majority of public cultural institutions.

As this has occurred, so the space allocated to learning within the architectural fabric of institutions has shifted. A clear example of this is the Design Museum, currently in the process of leaving its home since its founding in the 1980s in Shad Thames and moving to the former Commonwealth Institute building in the heart of West London. The overall footprint of the museum is being expanded, but of particular note will be an increase in the space allocated to education from 90m sq to some 600m sq, including a dedicated design studio.1 This is a clear example of how far museum education has come in a short time in terms of the recognition of its importance and need for space.

There has been a change though not only in the amount of floor space given over to education, but in the design of learning spaces within the wider architecture of institutions. Education rooms have come a long way from the often-windowless magnolia spaces of old. Funders who are backing an institution at least in part on the basis of education want due attention paid to it in the buildings that they finance, and this has been reflected in many recent new builds and refurbishments. For example, BALTIC in Gateshead, which opened in 2002, has since added the Quay Learning Space, which hosts a range of activities and showcases work by schools and communities, at the heart of the gallery in full view of visitors. This was of course though, a post-opening retrofit.2

Now it is typical for heavily-designed, prestigious earning spaces to occupy some of the best spots within a cultural venue, elevating the status of education within the architectural hierarchy of institutions. For example, the Museum of Liverpool, which opened in 2011, is the largest new build museum in the UK since the V&A opened in 1909. The Museum of Liverpool has several education spaces, but its largest, Education Area 3, occupies one of the most dramatic locations in the building. Constructed out of almost floor-to-ceiling glass, it places learning activity in view of visitors on the inside and outside of the building as well as giving those taking part stunning views across the ever-changing skies and river of the Mersey estuary, with sun and distractions easily blocked when required by electric blinds. These changes in design also reflect the shifting uses of education spaces to a degree. Once, learning in cultural institutions was largely about formal sessions for school children, along with perhaps the odd lecture. Now, learning facilities can find themselves being used for everything from youth panels to family craft workshops,reminiscence sessions with older people and evening talks in British Sign Language.

This has seen an increase in the creation of dedicated spaces aimed at specific audiences in some organisations. For example, when the Wellcome Collection in London first opened its new public venue in 2007 the only learning space provided was a general performance and events area. Now, as part of a large expansion programme, they are developing a dedicated youth events studio. The new studio will be an activity space for people aged 14 to 19 to engage with the Wellcome Collection and produce work that contributes to the organisation’s programme. Consultation with both staff and young people who would use the space was carried out by external facilitators, with the young people visiting learning and youth spaces across London. The main outcome of these consultations was a set of reports which were used by architects involved in creating the space to refer back to at the design stage.3

This is wise. Despite this improving design, location and space allocation, not all new education spaces function as well as they might and so often this stems from a lack of serious consultation with end users – be they education staff or participants. In some cases it seems also that the prestige of spaces has started to become a little removed from the reality of a learning facility – inevitably a changeable, messy, ‘live’ space.

From my experience of cultural education facilities in numerous venues as a staff member, freelancer and participant, I have developed a few ideas around what goes into making a great learning space. The key concept for me is that of flexibility. Learning spaces will inevitably be used for a myriad of activities, often for things that they were never envisaged for, as priorities, programmes, technologies and audiences change. Designing a space for a specific audience or activity can be great, but care should be taken to future-proof things. How quickly has a suite of Macs come to seem a little antiquated in the face of tablet computers?

Sizeable open plan spaces are great and flexible. However, cavernous spaces can sometimes be overwhelming and distracting, so if a space is large, the ability to break it up, with sliding doors or moveable partitions, is invaluable. In this respect Richard Rogers, Renzo Piano and Gianfranco Franchini had it right when they created the Pompidou Centre in Paris back in 1977.

Quay Space in Baltic

Quay Space in Baltic

Lighting is another vital and often over-looked component. Natural light wherever possible is desirable, especially if, for conservation or display purposes, other areas of an institution are dark most of the time. However, views outside windows and people peering in can also be distracting and unnerving for participants. Windows can also detract from showing videos, slides etc, so suitable and reliable blinds are a must. Strong lighting is also vital when working with disabled audiences, for example partially sighted people or visitors who lip-read or use sign language who rely on clear sightlines. When artificial lighting is used, the ability to raise and dim and split lighting into sections is easily achieved and really increases flexibility. Similarly the easy availability of points for power and data cables throughout a space is simple and vital but too often overlooked.

Soundproofing is another issue. I have witnessed in several venues the distracting sound bleed from audio-visual exhibits into education spaces, while the inability to cut off areas from public address systems can also be hugely undermining to activities. This is a wider issue in galleries in general, but has a particular effect on learning provision. It also highlights the wider challenges exhibition designers and architects face when trying to create new displays simultaneously as a building is being constructed or renovated.

The fittings and furniture of an education space are also important to its success. Flexible storage solutions and durable, lightweight, collapsible or stackable furniture is a must. While we have come a long way from piles of uncomfortable, ugly plastic chairs, unfortunately what has replaced them is too often fragile, easily marked, heavy and awkward. A piece of furniture may look great, but if it needs two people to move it, is impossible to get paint off and difficult to store when not needed, it is of little use in education spaces. A kitchen space with running water is also a big plus. A dishwasher and a dedicated separate sink for washing paint pots is great, but somewhere to at least fill a water jug and wash out a cup might not be glamorous but it is very useful.

A great learning space should also have some capacity to display things. Even something as simple as magnetic paint or a display board can be preferable to heavy cabinets and inflexible hanging systems, though these also have their uses if space and budget is available. Retractable screens and integrated projection units can also be good, similarly interactive whiteboards. However the flexibility of a white wall with hard-wearing paint should not be underestimated.

This leads us into interior decoration. While magnolia walls can be un-stimulating, too much going on in a design can be distracting from whatever activity happens to be taking place. A blank canvas to a degree allows creative activities to fill the space in their own way and for a future project to start the process all over again. Walls don’t have to be bare, but again, flexibility is the key to success, and the design of such spaces should respond to the overall design context, be that a radically shaped piece of ‘starchitecture’ or a refurbished older building. That said, the tendency for architects and those commissioning them to place education spaces into the ‘awkward corners’ of a building’s footprint once the ‘core spaces’ have been allocated has sadly not disappeared completely.

As learning within cultural institutions has moved towards the core, we have seen education and engagement programmes increasingly influencing or in some cases even becoming the ‘mainstream’ offer in certain sections of institutions or for dedicated periods of time. For example, the young people in Tate Collective and Student Ambassadors from University of the Arts London are involved in programming the June editions of the popular Late at Tate events for other Tate visitors to consume. Late at Tate has recently been moved into the overall Young People’s Programme and there are plans for Tate Collective to be involved in all such future events though to a lesser degree than the June sessions.4 It has become a norm for engagement teams and participants to influence or even create content for core exhibition and programmes, and displaying community produced work or curated objects in main galleries is now rarely questioned. As a phenomenon, this is to be welcomed, as it helps to validate the contribution made by those taking part as well as demonstrating their perspectives to other audiences and staff within an institution.

The recognition afforded by becoming part of the ‘core’ is undoubtedly valuable. However, such integration should not be at the expense of having dedicated space that is always for learning and engagement. Space away from public observation, precious objects and carefully laid-out displays is vital. Somewhere there can be a degree of freedom to experiment, where mess can be made and ideas, and lunch, can happen. Somewhere also that anyone who might be nervous about being in a cultural venue can have respite from often busy and stimulating galleries. Without this, the ability for learning and engagement projects to generate interesting new perspectives and new work will be reduced and what is contributed to the core will inevitably be diminished.

Even in institutions which now have plenty of well-designed, functional learning space, a potential new undermining of their use has emerged. Flexibility in such facilities may be the key to their success, but it can also be their undoing. In small institutions it can be vital that such spaces have uses beyond education, for everything from meetings to packing leaflets or temporarily storing objects. However education now often has to fight for space with revenue generating activity. This is to an extent inevitable in a time of reduced public funding and while a happy medium can be found, it could represent difficulties on the horizon. Larger institutions may have the luxury of dedicated spaces, but how long will such fine, purpose-built learning facilities keep education as their core function during the ever-increasing need to host commercial events, which themselves demand suitably ‘prestige’ spaces within institutions? We have come a long way in the architecture of spaces for learning within cultural institutions, but it is important that education programmes and the space they are afforded don’t slip back during these times. When it comes to allocating, designing and fitting out facilities for learning, it is crucial that education professionals are part of the conversation at the beginning. That way they can advocate at the highest level for the needs of both audiences and professionals and make sure that spaces are suitable, stimulating and practical. Active involvement of educationists is also perhaps the best way to ensure that once such facilities are created, they can continue to be used for their intended purpose and enable participants to continue to make interesting contributions and generate new perspectives in the organisations they are learning in.

This piece was published in engage journal 34: Experiencing Gallery Architecture in summer 2014.
Notes
1. Helen Charman, Head of Learning, Design
Museum, email interview, 3 February 2014
2. Wheeldon, I. (2012), ‘The Culture of Staff in &
the Contemporary Arts Centre’ in Thomas, E. (ed)
BALTIC Learning on the Frontline. Gateshead:
BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, p.67
3. Clare Carlin, Youth Programme Manager: Public
Programmes, The Wellcome Trust, telephone
interview 11 February 2014
4. Laura Turner, Assistant Curator: Young People’s
Programmes, Tate Britain and Tate Modern

Welsh Streets

10570412_10101266039643815_423706891123048102_n

By Kenn Taylor

Ominous
as evening draws in.
The deep red
that cuts through this decay
is dragged back to the west.
Past the mountains
from where the builders
of these streets
came.

Sheet steel, not glass,
fills windows.
Buddleia spurt from rooflines
in roads where even streetlights
have died.

Indifferent now to the dereliction
that awes some.
There is little romance
in domestic decay
when you see it every day.

The silence though.
‘What happened here?’
A passer by may ask.
‘Fire, flood, famine, war?’
All this and more.
Though this place in England
is really the result
of the dropping
of a thousand bombs
of ideology.

In times past
the few with power
saw money to be made.
Scraping back the fields
to cram in labour,
filling demand in a fierce new era.
Keeping the trade turning,
taking and not giving
from places faraway.

People came
looking for opportunity.
They built proud,
as if still for themselves,
in the hills
to last a thousand years.

Homes for those
seeking a better life.
Trying to get by,
though always in the firing line
through depressions and wars.
See a 1950s house
in-between Victorian walls.

From peace came another boom
that saw many out
to leafier spots.
A rare time
when people
maybe
had a chance.

The more desperate though
moved in from around the world.
To the houses
not yet pulled down
in the name of improvement
by those who felt they knew better.

New communities
trying to get by,
despite the vicious treatment
from those who hate difference.
Until Orford’s tactics
see bricks thrown back
at the thin line of authority,
shocked
that the worm could turn.

Sadly though
the end result,
even more labels put on a place
no longer treated as a community,
instead
abused as byword.

Left and right
claim it as their quarry.
Use it to blame each other,
as photo-journalists from Hampstead fight
to take the best pictures
of trainers hanging from telegraph poles.

Here though
a new plan emerges.
From clever types
in league with
desperate politicians
in a desperate city
and a few descendents also
of those with an eye
for profits from the land.
They all conspire from on high
to drop another bomb,
one of renewal.
‘This land must be cleared,’
traded again,
razed of its problems.

Those who remain though
just getting by,
trying to fight their corner,
are drowned out again
by those who feel
they know better.

The developers on one side,
scrabbling for deeds.
On the other
the creatives and
heritage enthusiasts.
Martyrs to old bricks
who set themselves up
as defenders
of what was never theirs.
Fantasists of a culture
they have never known,
they stalk around
writing of
tiling and wrought iron,
missing out the
rising damp and
regulation
Corporation Green doors.
Until they head back
far away
to quaint, expensive
places of no change.

No longer a place
in all its complexity,
instead just more bywords
for the ideologues.
Abused by both
poet and profiteer,
they squabble over the moral high ground
as the streets beneath them decay.
A battlefield.

One day,
can they just be homes?
Or do they have to wait
for the next bomb
from those
after money,
power,
or truth?

Long after opportunities rot away,
bonds remain.
Money gets throw in
then taken away
just as quick.
Everyone
carries on getting by
trying to rebuild
brick by brick.
Let people decide their own fate,
their own path for their community.
Is it so much to ask?

A car speeds down the silent street,
the sun has gone.
No light from the windows.
I reach the end of the road
and turn away.

This piece appeared in the July 2014 edition of The Shrieking Violet. Cover design by Robert Carter.

‘Our Changing Neighbourhood’

Millman

By Kenn Taylor

Sir John Soane’s Museum in London is the former home of architect John Soane, and has been largely unchanged since his death in 1837.

The Soane has developed links with the older people’s reminiscence group at the nearby Millman Street Resource Centre. However, with the museum’s history and collection dating far beyond living memory, using reminiscence as an engagement tool seemed problematic.

One project that worked around this was Our Changing Neighbourhood. Reminiscence sessions about the local area selected different places that were important to members of the group. The museum then sourced maps and images of these places at different times in history.

In later sessions we looked at how these places had changed over two centuries and then worked with an artist to print some of the images we had found onto calico along with people’s own personal memories of the sites. These were then attached to our large map to show their locations.

The project worked well by connecting people’s memories to wider periods of history. The project was delivered over four sessions. In hindsight one or two more may have been preferable so the participants could have had more time to work on their artwork, especially due to the mobility difficulties of some group members.

The artwork that was created will now be used as a resource by the museum to undertake sessions with other older people in the local area to encourage their own reminiscences about their changing neighbourhood.

This piece appeared in the July 2014 edition of Museum Practice.

Retail Therapy

Oikpic

By Kenn Taylor

“Bdumm!” The satisfying sound of the long-suffering warehouse doors being whacked aside once more by my roll-cage. The thought of damaging company property is incredibly satisfying, though it does little to alleviate the aches that presently swarm across my body with every movement. Somewhere inside this drink-battered carcass there is a healthy, sober man trying to get out.

Onto the shop floor proper and into that light that penetrates your skull. The uniquely awful combination of fluorescent lamps bouncing off shiny, nearly all white, surfaces with the constant, dizzying hum of innumerable refrigeration units thrown in for good measure.

A gratifying, but ill-judged, hard swing of the cage to the right sees me manoeuvre into a cardboard display stand.

“Shit.”

Still early though, no one about to bollock me, so I re-fold the thing vaguely back into shape and start to pick up all the sweet packets. In this state, even bending down is enough to send me close to collapse.

What was I thinking? Another ‘It’s-not-ilegal-if-you-don’t-tell-anyone-and-we’ll-give-you-time-and-a-half’, finish at 10pm back in for 6am shift. But then I need the money, I’ll just have an early night. No problem. Okay, just one drink. One fucking drink.

And so at 3.55am I make it back home. Approximately 1 hour 45 minutes’ sleep later the clock goes off and, after cursing the guy who assembled it to eternal damnation, I drag myself up and put on yesterday’s crumpled uniform. After all, I’m the only gobshite on shift.

So here we are. Ankle deep in fucking Toffos.

I drag the cage round to my respective shelf, past a solitary, early-bird shopper and Hannah pushing the floor polisher. Big lass, but I would.

Not now though. Onwards and upwards and one step-ladder later, I’m rearranging tea bags so they’re all ship shape and Saveco fashion. You get a good vantage point from here. Up with the gods you can see right across the shop, row after row after row, after row.

I feel fucking sick.

It’s quiet. I lay down next to the ladder. Just collect my head, clear the muck out of my throat. Didn’t even have time for a shower this morning, old sweat sticks to my skin, made all the better by the Bri-Nylon crap that constitutes work-wear around here. To add insult to injury, the clown on the Music and Video Desk has turned up and decided ‘Fast Car’ by Tracy Chapman is ideal 6.45am listening.

I pick myself up slowly and return to the job. Keep going old son, an English breakfast is but two hours away. Ah, but it’s Thursday: Pension day. All the old folks turn up to buy their small loaves and small cartons of milk and tell you about their exciting day in the Post Office queue and then how their children just don’t come around any more. It really comes to something when the only place old folks can get company is chatting to weary shelf stackers in a tin barn built over the sites of the old factories they used to work in.

Mind you, they’re not all innocent old dears. Karim nabbed one the other day with two bottles of vodka, 3 tins of cat food and a cucumber hidden in her coat. Now that’s a party I wouldn’t have minded going too.

“Excuse me…” Despite the hangover, my retail ninja training kicks in. Quick as a flash I turn and say:

“How can I help you?”

And straightaway alarm bells begin to ring in the back of my mind. The prejudice that comes from long tours of duty in the aisles gives you a nose for the worst beasts to handle, and here’s a prime example.

Woman in early middle age, smartly but cheaply dressed in a stiff trouser suit. Designer glasses that she probably couldn’t afford and already possessing a stern look in her eye the moment I turn around. It doesn’t look good.

“See the items in these trays?”

“Aye.”

“Well the label on the side says there are reduced but none of the items in here have been reduced.”

“Oh yes, sorry, madam, but someone goes around in the morning and takes everything off the shelves that needs to be marked down and puts them there. Then they mark them all down a bit later when they get chance.”

“Well?”

“Well…what?”

“I want them marked down now. I don’t have time to wait, some of us have to get to work,” she says with a pout and a hint of a rough accent creeping in behind the restrained tones. It’s worse than I thought, she’s an ‘I’ve-conqured-the-male-world-of-the-office-and-I’m-not-going-to-get-told-what’s-what-by-a-lacky-shop-monkey’ sort. No doubt works in an estate agent, or something similar; bit thick but has got where she is today by kissing ass and taking shit and she aint going to do it no more. Too brassy and prim to have had kids, and the faux-continental, shite-for-one in her basket backs this up. She’s probably divorced. No doubt lies at home alone every night and masturbates vigorously to a mental image of Daniel Craig.

Sweeping generalisations? Well all she sees is a dopey cunt in an awful shirt, and that’s only because she wants something; most of the time they don’t see you at all. You learn much when no-one sees you. If you want to learn about people, work in a supermarket. All human life is here, from smackheads to plasterers to barristers to struggling mums and bitches like this, and they barely notice you in the corner, beavering away.

But we’re there. We know. We know who people are shagging and who’s pregnant and whose kids are going to the grammar school and who’s going down for a stretch. Usually we couldn’t give a fuck and would rather talk about the football and last night’s CSI: Miami. But we still know.

Anyway.

“I’m sorry but I don’t have the facility to mark them down. You need to get one of the computer guns signed out from the office and I’ve got to get this job finished before 7am. The guy who does the mark downs will be along in just a little while.” I offer a genuine smile, but it gets rejected. She twists her nose, straightens her back and moves off.

Just the fact that I’d managed to wind her up over such a stupid thing would normally have given me that rare sense of superiority that you’re not as small-minded as they are. Not when I’m in this state though, I only hope she’s the one bad customer of the day.

But I’ve barely got back on my step-up when I see Ms Valued Fucking Customer coming back around the corner with an unimpressed-looking Sarah in tow.

“James, did you just give this customer cheek?”

Cheek?! What the fuck?!

“I served the lady to the best of my ability, Sarah.” I shoot the shopper a mild look of sweet inquisitiveness. REMEMBER, SMILE THE BASTARDS TO DEATH. “As I explained, I have no facility to mark things down. Ash will be along in a minute with the terminal.”

“And as I explained to your employee, some of us have to get to work. If,” she talks at Sarah like I’m not there, her well-shod foot tapping with tension, “it isn’t to be marked down yet it shouldn’t have been put out on the display rack. I’ve got a good mind to call Trading Standards.”

“Look, James, just take the lady’s item and mark it down in the back, twice. Then, take the rest of this rack out to the warehouse. You know you shouldn’t leave this out.” Sarah speaks in her best, ‘you’re-a-naughty-boy’ tones, which may wash with her kids, but not with me. She turns to DragonBint. “I’m sorry for your inconvenience, madam; James will sort that out for you now, and let’s see if we can get you a complimentary voucher.” I go to protest, but stop when I realize the futility.

DragonBint hands over the goods, one pack of bagels.

All this over ONE. PACK. OF. BAGELS.

I could, then, have gone straight into how of all the grand, horrendous, horrific crimes and injustices that goes on every day in this world – children dying after they’re born because of inadequate medical care, whole countries kept in poverty because of the underhand dealings of international conglomerates, young girls running away to London because they’re scared they might be pregnant because their boyfriends forced them at the party they shouldn’t have gone to and ending up as crack-whores on the streets of Kings Cross – and this woman chooses to get angry about 25 pence off A PACK OF FUCKING BAGELS.

But I don’t. Use your customer service warrior training, my son. Maintain the poker face and grit teeth. DO NOT LET THEM WIN. “Sorry madam, I’ll sort this out right away.”

I hold in my righteous indignation. And I could have coped with it, happens dozens of times every day. It’s just another petty injustice of retail life. But then as Sarah turns, DragonBint flicks her taught face into a self-satisfied sneer and grins at me.

RIGHT! I turn around before I get chance to do some severe damage and release my internal flames through my eyes and the slow, firm pressure I give to the pack of Bagels. So lady, you think you’ve won. Revenge is a dish best served cold, madam, that’s our culinary tip of the day.

“Bdumm!” I let a little bit more out by giving those doors a whack with so much enthusiasm that they bounce off the sides and come back at me. Terry is going the other way with a job lot of TVs.

“Eh Jay, you look well rough.”

“Cheers, el tel,” I say.

“Ah you young ’uns,” he says with a wry grin, “I remember when I used to be out every night.”

Terry’s jovial words pacify me a little and I let a little more of the pressure out. But I feel even weaker than before with the rage gone, just a shell again, a sweaty, smelly shell. Terry moves forwards towards the light of the shopfloor and I descend into the bowels.

And behind the pretty pictures of shiny fruit and the gleaming white tiles lies where the real work is done. As I emerge out of the corridor into the cavernous, dank warehouse, a chill hits me from the loading bay. It’s still dark outside. I can hear the forklift humming in the yard, so I walk over and wave to Paul. The bite of the early morning air cuts deeper into me and, looking out across the yard to the blue-black sky, the deserted road and the still-strapped newspapers, I feel a vague sense of satisfaction that I am up and at ’em before most people are out of bed.

To business, though. And I wander over to the trolley with all of Ash’s other mark-downs on it and the pricing gun. Simple enough job. But first some extra, personal service for a valued customer

I slip the wee yellow tag from the top of the bagel packet, they’re always loose, and tip out the contents straight onto the lovely, mucky concrete. A multitude of sins reduced to unidentifiable rubbery black stains welcomes them as they hit the deck.

A quick glance around to check no one is coming, nothing but the sound of the box-crusher straining in the distance. Two bagels go up my Bri-Nylon shirt for a wee visit to my sticky pits, with their moisture courtesy of last night’s dancing and the other two go a darker, more hazardous journey down the sweaty crack of last night’s boxers.

I take them all out and examine them again, no real visible damage. Looking at them closely they have achieved a new sheen and a few hairs, but the dark bits are nicely masked by the raisins and sesame seeds. Mmm, the recipe is not yet complete. It needs some…dressing!”

Ah, out of cheese are we. I’ll get some of my own. Swing my head back, one big hawk and Pppthsh. Nice big green and cream one on the flatbed trolley. Eeeuigh. Well, that’s what 20 Lambert and Butler does to your insides, kids. Now, easy does it, just a slight dab around the fringes of it with the baked goods, nothing so you’d notice, just enough of the green stuff to taste. Now, back in to your lovely hermetically-sealed packaging like new. Let’s go for broke. I’ll give her 35p off not 25p. Just to show that we CARE.

I wander back through to the shop floor. My still throbbing head thankfully helping to keep the massive fucking smirk I feel inside from coming out. DragonBint is waiting by the swing doors, arms folded, face like a punched kitten. I hand her the bagels with a polite smile. “Here you go, all nicely discounted.” I’m about to feel a little sorry for her as she takes them from my grasp, but then she purses a lip and snorts before turning around. As we begin off in our separate directions along the long, white thoroughfare I shout back to her:

“Have a nice day now!”

I know I will.

This piece appeared in the Summer 2014 editon of The Crazy Oik.

Austerity

By Kenn Taylor

I went on a journey
of nostalgia
to somewhere I used to go
Down a dark path
In an unloved park
In an unloved town

The building was still there
but now secure
Plywood
and wire mesh
On every window
and door

Through a crack though
there was a gap enough to view
that, where once there had been
animals to see
and friendly, old staff
now only
rubble and decay
Overgrown and abandoned

Another tiny tragedy
There are a million more
No headlines or campaigns
Just one more quiet sacrifice
to the god of austerity
While, those that caused the mess
carry on
as before

A decision made over an account sheet
by people
who know the value of nothing
People who then wonder why
so many of the young
don’t even try

Protecting our grandchildren, they say
from the debts of today
I have to wonder though
what will be left for them
tomorrow

 The piece appeared in the January 2014 edition of The Shrieking Violet.

Distance Over Time

By Kenn Taylor

Look ahead
First
Hard
Push
Down on the right
Cheap metal
Once again
Creaks into life
Balance is achieved
And motion begins

Momentum builds
Long straight road
Muscles strain and tense
Legs pushing
Heat dragging
Chemicals shooting
To the brain
Fingers grip
And burn

The movement begins to take
The pull
Faster
All sinews strain
As the click, click, click of the ratchet
Becomes one constant sound

Air is sliced
Sound trills
Metal and body
Shake and protest
Silenced though
By
Ever
Increasing
Speed

Lean into a corner
The frame groans
The wheels shake
The rhythm continues
Thighs aching now
Forward
Forward
As you reach
The crest of the hill

Sweat now coating
Head and back
Look down
Pressure is released
Relief
As all parts strain forward

Pause pedals
The wheels run free
Guided, fast
By forces
Now beyond your control

Another bend at speed
Lean ever closer to the ground
The wheels now a blur
Grinning ever more
As the hill pulls down

Feeling every crack of the road
Every twist of wind
Every grit in the air
Unbending rhythm with machine
Muscles stretched
Aching
Metal
And body
Slowly
Slowly
Disintegrating

Lean in again
Further, lower
The thrill
Free
Brake now released
Heart beats
Feeling only sound
Enveloped by wind
As the last corner
Approaches
Behind it
Only light

This appeared in the August 2013 edition of The Shrieking Violet.

 

Pre-Worn: art, artists and the post-industrial community

Hackney, London

By Kenn Taylor.

In 2012 the Liverpool Biennial continued its tradition of using empty buildings to exhibit art. This time around, spaces it occupied for the period of the festival included the huge abandoned Royal Mail sorting office at Copperas Hill and the former waiting rooms of the Cunard shipping company on the city’s waterfront. With many visitors commenting that these unused spaces were just as, if not more, fascinating than some of the art on display in them.

In the past, the Liverpool Biennial has occupied everything from a disused Art Deco cinema in the city centre to a former glass warehouse near the docks. The de-industrialisation and de-population experienced by Liverpool over the last few decades meaning there is no shortage of empty buildings to use. The re-animation of such abandoned spaces is a key part of the Biennial’s strategy, with urban regeneration a fundamental reason for the festival’s founding and existence.

Of course, the reutilisation of former commercial space for the creation and display of art is itself an older phenomenon. Dating back to at least 1960s New York and since seen around the world from London to Berlin to Sao Paulo.

As well as being a particular trend within artistic production, the use of post-industrial areas for creative purposes also reflects wider shifts within economics and society in the latter part of the 20th century. Traditional urban hubs began to lose the industrial bases that had helped make them rich and many cities, if they could, moved towards more service-orientated economies based on things like finance, the media, tourism and leisure. The effects that this had on the communities that had relied on such industry for sustenance were usually deeply negative; economic decline, social decay and de-population.

However, this also led to the freeing up of a large amount of previously occupied space which, with demand having collapsed, was available at very low rates. This attracted the some of the expanding pool of artists in the post-war era. Once hubs of this new ‘industry’ began to emerge, more and more of the ‘creative class’, to use Richard Florida’s term, started to move in and slowly change the nature of these areas. With the subsequent upswing in activism and entrepreneurship that saw abandoned spaces becoming art galleries, coffee shops and the like, these areas became increasingly fashionable. To the point were those wishing to live in a trendy locale or buy into a particular lifestyle, even if they themselves were not ‘creative’, began to move there. Then, as wealthy professionals came to dominate these areas, the ‘poor young artists’ were forced out. Despite artists in many cases using their creative strengths to rail against the effect, the process has usually been inevitable and irreversible. Such ‘gentrification’ of post-industrial areas has been well documented, for example in Sharon Zurkin’s classic study of its effects in New York: Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change.[i]

What is it though, that attracts art and artists to such post-industrial areas in the first place? That is, aside from the low costs?

The flexibility of industrial space is another key factor. Given the myriad forms of contemporary art that began to emerge in the latter half of the 20th century and the often large spaces it needs to be created and displayed in, huge open-plan buildings formerly filled with goods, machinery and people became ideal art spaces. It was initially artists’ studios, followed by grassroots galleries and then commercial galleries which began using abandoned industrial buildings, but this phenomenon perhaps came of age when public galleries also began to occupy former industrial spaces.

The use of abandoned commercial buildings allowed new museums and galleries to have the same monumental scale of older purpose-built museums and in some cases, such as Gateshead’s Baltic and London’s Tate Modern, even larger. Yet as ‘recycled’ buildings, they didn’t have the same naked self-confidence as a structure created for ‘art’s sake’ as say, Tate Britain or even the Brutalist Hayward Gallery in London.

Turning these buildings into museums was seen, less an act of reverence and ego, as were the museum constructions of the past, with their links to elitism and the idea of a strictly defined high culture, more the humble recycling of unused space. Financially it also made sense. As it became ever harder to justify the spending of public money on ‘fine art’ in a world which had begun to acknowledge all forms of cultural production had validity, re-using abandoned industrial space and bringing a ‘buzz’ to a declined area became another good reason to justify public spending on culture.

However, the notion of tapping into a pre-existing ‘authenticity’ that former industrial areas are perceived as having is also vital to this phenomenon. Like someone buying a pair of pre-worn jeans, the abandoned cranes and switchgear, decay and graffiti in post-industrial spaces lends an immediate character and ‘legitimacy’. A tinge of authenticity that can be taken up by those who are seeking it, I.E. those of middle and upper class backgrounds who inevitably dominate the creative class of any given city.

Copperas Hill Sorting Office during Liverpool Biennial

This seems to be something that is at the core of what attracts creatives, and the cultural institutions that ultimately follow them, to post-industrial buildings and communities. It is inevitably the ‘character’ and the relative ‘wildness’ of such areas which is the biggest draw after low costs and large spaces. The frequent desire for many in the creative community to live as they wish without attracting too much grief from the authorities, leads to the search for ‘transgressive’ spaces. Whilst mingling with poorer populations who behave in a less ‘conventional’ way (I.E. middle/upper class and suburban) also seems to provide in the minds of some an authenticity they crave. And therein lays the rub. The conditions which many artists seem to thrive on are those that are usually negative for the pre-existing communities that they take residence in. Abandoned space, very low rents, cheap intoxicants, an ‘edgy’ atmosphere, a lack of employment and a sense of lawlessness are generally signs of a community struggling.

Creative communities formed in this way also tend to be short-lived, relying on a rapid turnover of young people moving in. Within a few years most leave these ‘authentic’ localities, as they begin to settle down into family units. That is of course, if such areas don’t reach a tipping point and those moving in change the nature of the neighbourhoods they inhabit into more ‘family friendly’, I.E. quasi-suburban, conditions as seen in parts of London, New York and Berlin. A phenomenon which usually sees rents rise and often drives out more deprived and diverse pre-existing communities. When such gentrification does begin, creatives are usually the first to complain about the influx of the wealthier middle-classes and about how artists are being pushed out. Inevitably identifying themselves as ‘fellow outsiders’ with the ‘edgy’ local community they move into rather than the ‘Yuppies’.

Creative inhabitants of such communities are usually much less willing to admit that it is precisely them who begin the process in the first place. Without their studios and venues beginning to occupy such spaces and them being the “shock troops of gentrification” as memorably described by Rosalyn Deutsche[ii], who help make an area fashionable, the richer urban professionals would be much less likely to follow them, softly softly.

Once the notion of creative gentrification was hit upon, it quickly became a tool of local authorities world-wide to ‘improve’ areas on a brutally pragmatic level. Used as a process to quietly drive out often poor and deprived populations and replace them with the well-educated and wealthy, thus seeing an upswing in tax receipts and a decrease in expenditure. Cultural regeneration in that mode serves the interests of creatives who want ‘free’ space and those who seek areas to become ‘profitable’, but in the process inevitably, ultimately pushes out pre-existing communities.

What though of these ‘alternative quarters’ in the period between their industrial decline and their inevitable gentrification? Are they the hubs of originality and authenticity that so many seek? Well they certainly seem to be places where new ideas and artists frequently tend to emerge from, but for all the claims of uniqueness and individuality, the alternative areas of most cities worldwide, if looked at closely, seem remarkably similar. With any difference usually down to factors which predate their emergence as a creative quarter. Common denominators include the aforementioned former industrial space re-utilised for culture, an international and largely young population, more often than not from comfortable and well-educated backgrounds, ‘alternative’ cafes, graffiti, electronic music and independent clothing stores which sell similar, if ever-changing, fashion styles.

Such creative quarters may emphasise their distance from the financial quarters of cities, with their generic glass office blocks and branches of chain coffee stores, but in their own way they are just as generic; international spaces often better connected to each other than they are to the communities around them.

The respective communities that inhabit contemporary financial and creative quarters have more in common than either would probably like to think. Both are often fond of intoxicants and parties and are cosmopolitan, if largely still of the middle-upper section of global society, a section which is highly mobile and international in outlook. Like the CEO looking for the country with the lowest cost of production and tax breaks to set up a business, many artists move around the world looking for the cheapest digs and availability of funding by local authorities keen for their own slice of gentrification.

One set may wear suits, the other retro t shirts, to display their respective capital in each zone they occupy, but both are, in their own way, living off the wider community, creating ‘products’ which, though important, are not the vitals of life made in the far off agricultural and, still producing, industrial zones of the world. While ultimately both branches of this globalised class have, in their own way, occupied former industrial working class spaces of inhabitation and influence, as seen in the case of the takeover of the East End of London by a mixture of the finance class around the former docklands and the creative class in areas such as Shoreditch.

As previously discussed, most creative quarters very quickly become a parody of themselves as, after the shock troops of artists move in, the second wave of urban professionals and cultural tourists follow, occupying an area then, having usually changed it fundamentally into another generic ‘alternative’ hub, seek the cultural capital of being the first into the next ‘hot’ area.

This obsession with the inhabiting the margins seems to stem in part from a desire to exist in an alternative space to the prevailing capitalist system and a rejection of the bourgeois nature of suburban life. Finding, studying, living in and making reference to the margins in the minds of many takes them outside of a system they dislike. Yet the margins are a product of and part of the system. Their gentrification by the artistic and educated classes results in their removal as bases for those who are forced to exist on the edge of society by capitalism and turns them into areas that feed more successfully into the system. In moving into these areas to live in an alternative way, in many cases, such people ultimately help to destroy whatever was alternative about it.

As Rosalyn Deutsche and Cara Gendel Ryan put it in their essay about New York, ‘The Fine Art of Gentrification’: “For despite their bohemian posturing, the artists and dealers who created the East Village art scene, and the critics and museum curators who legitimize its existence, are complicit with gentrification on the Lower East Side. To deny this complicity is to perpetuate one of the most enduring, self-serving myths in a bourgeois thought, the myth that, as Antonio Gramsci wrote, intellectuals form a category that is ‘autonomous and independent from the dominant social group. This self-assessment is not without consequences in the ideological and political field, consequences of wide-ranging import.’ ”[iii]

So, are there alternatives for the creative class who wish to live in such areas aside from colonising and destroying the communities they profess to love? Well if there is, it’s about integration rather than replacement and, if art and regeneration is to benefit such urban communities themselves, it can only do so by embedding the needs and desires of existing residents into practice.

One possible example is the recent Homebaked/2up2down initiative in Anfield, Liverpool, arranged by the Liverpool Biennial. Over a period of two years the project, led by artist Jeanne van Heeswijk, worked to embed itself in the local community and through collaboration developed the ultimate aim of re-opening a closed-down bakery in the neighbourhood. For the period of the Biennial itself, the group that had been formed around the project also created a tour for visitors based around meeting local people. Homebaked/2up2down thus provided services for the existing community, helped to tell the story of the area to visitors and promote local expression. Those involved are now working towards making the bakery a sustainable community business and refurbishing adjacent housing under co-operative ownership. This stands in contrast to the aforementioned former Royal Mail sorting office and Cunard waiting rooms which, now the Biennial have left, are destined for a new commercial future.

Homebaked Anfield

Yet one of the reasons this Biennial project in Anfield is unlikely to begin the process of pushing out the existing community is because of the small number of professional artists that can live in Liverpool due to the relatively small arts market and the relatively weak economy. This means the process of gentrification will always be limited. Conducting a similar initiative in an area with more opportunities for creatives to make a living and move in, such as London or New York, would perhaps still ultimately be just be another step in making the community into the next ‘hotspot’.

Mark Binelli in his book The Last Days of Detroit examines the ultimate post-industrial city and the various aspects of cultural regeneration that have gone on there, including the Detroit’s emergence as a new, low-cost, wild, authentic space for artists from elsewhere. He’s sees the potential in this to help regenerate the abandoned areas of the city now Motown has far less of a motor industry and Manhattan has almost entirely pushed its edgy aspects away. However, he is also wary of the new playgrounds of the creative class treading on the ruins of communities that in many cases had their existence swept away by factors outside their control. He quotes a local resident, Marsha Cusic: “Some of the people coming here bring a sort of bacchanal spirit, like they’re out on the frontier and they can do anything…Detroit isn’t some kind of abstract art project. It’s real for people. These are real memories. Every one of these houses has a story.”[iv]

Similarly, many of the former industrial areas of Liverpool may have no hope of a future industrial use and their re-appropriation as spaces for art, etc, can give great abandoned buildings, even abandoned areas, a new use and prevent decay into dust. Yet it should not be forgotten that, as much as it may be a futile wish, many of people who previously occupied such spaces, from Liverpool to Berlin to Detroit, would have preferred an alternative world. One of secure, healthy, happy communities with busy industries, not edgy, troubled and ‘authentic’ areas suffering at the raw end of globalised capitalism, with plenty of room for art galleries and parties.

This piece appeared on cities@manchester, a blog of the University of Manchester in May 2013.


[i] Sharon Zurkin, Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press,1982, rev. ed. New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press, 1989)

[ii] Rosalyn Deutsche, Evictions: Art and Spatial Politics (Cambridge, Massachusetts, MIT Press, 1998), p. 151.

[iii] Rosalyn Deutsche and Cara Gendel Ryan, ‘The Fine Art of Gentrification’,  The Portable Lower East Side, Volume 4, Number 1, (1987) <http://www.abcnorio.org/about/history/fine_art.html&gt; [accessed 2nd March 2013]

[iv] Mark Binelli, The Last Days of Detroit (London, Bodley Head, 2013), p.285.