Identifying the question:
As an artist and resident of this place, at this time, it is impossible to ignore the process of change. It seeps into your consciousness, and eventually into your practice. I set out at the beginning of my action research to attempt to answer one question which seemed relevant and necessary. I wanted to know, from the people of the city: What does this city really need?
Over the last few years I have investigated and researched examples of artistic or cultural activity [operating within cities] in order to uncover the impact that art and culture might have on the regeneration of a city. At the beginning of my action research I broke these activities down into four types:
- Object impact (through a building or piece of work – the Guggenheim,
- Event impact (arts festivals or Biennials –
- Award Impact (Capital of Culture Status –
- Project impact (Community collaboration projects – The Hidden Garden Project,
I noticed that the more successful and sustainable projects were those that worked with the communities and people surrounding them - perhaps through consultation processes which happen from the outset ensuring the activity is bespoke in nature; or otherwise through projects which the communities nearby take to heart later.
My aim was to open a dialogue with the people of
How to answer a question:
In the early stages of the questioning process I created a postcard to give to the people of
This lead to the development of various statements about what this city needs; my favourite being: This City Needs A Hero – I had 300 badges made to spread the word.
Falling down rabbit holes:
Towards the beginning of the programme I arranged to be interviewed by a fellow practitioner. The idea was that the interview could help to set out and explore my motives for engaging with the people of the city. Questions asked included:
- What is your mission?
- What are you keen to achieve?
- What would you like to convince the people of
The interesting thing about this long conversation was that it was meant to focus my intentions at the beginning of the project. What it actually did was petrify me into inaction. The process of examining my own motives and processes actually made me feel unsure, and sent me into a period of quiet reflection (aka artists block). In the long run this process of exploration, petrification and later action to unpick bad stitches has lead to an enlightenment about my own artistic process. I now see that my questions as an artist happen publicly. My motives, intentions and mission are not fixed, they shape my actions as much as my actions shape them. I have realised that this flexibility and ability to affect as well as be affected is important to me.
Getting back on track:
The good thing about rabbit holes is that some of them lead to Wonderland. Once I realised this, I was able to climb out in a new place. To understand what is needed it is often useful to understand what is already there, so I decided to become The Undercover Tourist, and go to the Tourist Information Centre to see what they would tell me to do in the city. I learnt a number of things from my espionage;
- This city has no tour guide.
- Tourists visiting the city generally miss out the city centre completely, preferring to visit the potteries factories which are scattered across the six towns.
- Each person in the city has a different idea of what should be celebrated and what ignored.
Why don’t we have a tour guide in
Cities employ tour guides to talk about the wealth of heritage, culture and beauty of a place. I decided to become The Official Tour Guide for Stoke-on-Trent, but this tour guide would take the tourist to the sites of regeneration around the city, pointing out faults as well as beauty; offering up the city as a site for propositions - questioning, ‘Who is this for?’, ‘What do we do with this?’, ‘Why is this here?’ My tours show one artist’s response to a place in the hope that the participant may start to question in a similar way.
The emphasis of the tours was that we would talk about the city as a space for art and culture to exist, examining the gaps of a place, and instead of seeing gaping wounds, seeing creative spaces which can be filled.
The tourists meet their guide in
Where could this lead?
The Regeneration Tours are a starting point and are something that I intend to develop further. In the early stages of development are ‘The 1986 Garden Festival Tour’ which examines the remnants of one of the last big cultural projects in the city, and ‘The City Car Park Tour’ which leads the tourists around the city’s single most popular use of its land.
The realisation that has come from this period of action research is the importance of the questioning process that I am engaged with in the city, and how this process necessarily involves other artists and citizens. To conclude, I set up an opportunity to discuss the questions raised and examined by the action research project with other practitioners. This necessitated the need to redefine what the question might be and lead me to understand that the original question ‘What does this city really need?’ is too broad and big. A forum meeting was held where this and other questions were raised, and the ensuing conversation demonstrated the need to investigate further.
And so I exit the action research in the same way that I entered, with a new question.
What is the artist’s role in the changing city?