Sunday, 24 July 2011

a field student of archives, libraries and consultations

Field Study’s Man in E17 currently resides in a billet measuring 280x340x370cm. This space has an ordinary assortment of domestic furnishings including a double bed, a wardrobe, and a chest of draws, a desk and chair, several book shelves. It also accommodates his archive of art works or field studies - a relatively large collection of boxes, crates, files, books and other items. To maintain the room as a place for art activity, the archive is tightly packed, remote and less than easily accessible. Various efforts to sort out the archive, e.g. chronologically, have never been completed and the physical/geographical inaccessibility has been accompanied by a temporal or cerebral inaccessibility. The prospect of trying to retrieve an item from this awkward and confused memory is daunting and often deters the effort. The stuff(ing) is effectively lost.
So it was this evening he remembered he has/had some photographs of a ‘planning for real’ workshop in action, dating back to the mid 1990s. He was involved with a community arts organisation in Stevenage that instigated some projects about countryside access. He was thinking about ‘planning for real’ in relation to Adrian Stannard’s talk about issues and ways of increasing participation in the public planning process. If he recalls correctly his photographs show members of a community working out, by modelling, how a new road/bypass might affect their locality, including access to the surrounding countryside. He scrabbled about in the far reaches, heights and depths of his 35,224,000 cubic cm alter-cranium for the images. A landslide of a crate of slides temporarily buried him and so put an end to his search. What of this failure? Would the photographs actually reveal anything about the process which could not be communicated by other more easily accessible images? Was this another instance of Field Study’s Man in E17 aka Julian Beere attempting to qualify some sort of notion of himself - the photographs akin to art boy scout badges? Field Study’s Man in E17 could award himself a medal for bravery in action under-the-bed and dress his chest up like a field marshal on parade.

Let’s return to the serious subject of participation in public planning, policy and implementation. Planning for Real® is real and I (who?) mentioned it to AS at the NfN talk and it transpired something similar may have been tried as part of the development of a new housing estate near The Epicentre. I don’t know if Planning for Real ® was what was used in Stevenage however it seems to me that embodied approach to planning is an accessible or inclusive way of getting people involved in a consultation.

The issue of civic participation and consultation is prevalent in the mind of Field Study’s Man in E17 as he has been trying to get to grips with the prospect of library closures in Waltham Forest. The London Borough of Waltham Forest has instigated a public consultation about this and Field Study’s Man (here shifting into citizen J Beere mode) has started to fill in a form while also consulting various sources of information and opinion about the issue of library closures - many of which are on-line.
From the pages of Prospect* magazine, Charles Leadbeater refers to the personal computer, the internet and the mobile phone as vernacular tools that allow people to collaborate and communicate. He says this in relation to an assessment of Ivan Illich’s Tools for Conviviality, which asserts an ethos aimed at undermining or subverting the dominance of technocratic elites. Top down, hierarchical professional policy makers, planners, and developers are to be challenged and accompanied by the cooperative and co opted citizen. The latter is not to be just a consumer of public services but more a stake holder and budget holder. This participation will be, in part, enabled by new technology.
Users of Harrow Green Library face the prospect of that library’s closure and thus ‘free’ access to the internet. Of course the internet provision is not really free; it is just not paid for at the point of access but paid for by Council Tax and the council asserts or rather proposes there is insufficient revenue via Council Tax to fund that library and its services. Harrow Green Library internet users will have to go to other libraries where there will be longer waiting times for the pc/internet use. Harrow Green Library is in an area of relatively high social deprivation in the borough and people who use the library for study and job searching will be disadvantaged socially, culturally and economically. The most used service at Harrow Green Library is the internet. Of course, there are other options for internet access via other publicly funded means as well as commercial and private facilities. Popular access to the internet is in a state of technological flux and all sorts of ‘smart’ devices can enable connection or connectivity. The long term question concerns, how the effects of decommissioning and losing genuinely local resources can be alleviated by such things as convivial ‘apps’?
The Harrow Green Library profile, provided by the consultation states, 84% of users travel less than a mile to get to the library. This suggests a considerable change for, inconvenience to and disenfranchisement of library users in the area. Unless the council accompanies such a closure by improvements in the provision of the remaining libraries, the closures of Harrow Green and South Chingford libraries will represent a form of deterrence against library use. I think the premise of the consultation is flawed in the way it isolates libraries, identifying some as less used or successful than others, and so does not maintain a sense of the library service as a whole. Taking away some libraries is not necessarily going to benefit other libraries.

* - Charles Leadbeater, The DIY State, in, Prospect magazine, January 2007.   

Friday, 15 July 2011

a field student of cogitations

Field Study's ruminant in E17 headed for the vegetable (vegetative?) fields of E4 to seek some grounded reflections on the this, that and every which way dilettantish nature of his studies. Above he found the keenly perforating thorns of the forest garden's worcester berry bushes, the fruits of which were to be found hanging beneath the leafy canopy, hidden in a high summer forest gloom. An acidic sharp and sweet reward. 

While elsewhere on the allotment plot, below is evidence of a sustained procession around the raised rocket bed - a path trodden, scraped, plucked and stripped so as to be bare to the soil and dust. This vigorously peppery rocket appears to have found it's roots in the former site of a once long established composting site.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

a field student of planning processes and agendas

How and why does public art come to be in Waltham Forest? A partial answer came via Adrian Stannard at this month’s News from Nowhere Club meeting and talk. Adrian Stannard asked, will the internet encourage the public to engage in the planning process in Waltham Forest? He explored the issue of participation via a series of power point slides with a guiding commentary on the many stages and implications of public planning processes.
One of the slides concerned the Section 106 Agreement. This is what developers can pay to offset negative impacts caused by their construction and development projects. Adrian Stannard spoke about Tesco and Highams Park as an example. A million pounds may be paid to the community to fund tree planting, community facilities and other needs. There is a local report about this here.
Public art happens to be one of the expenditures to which Section 106 funds can be applied. I wondered if it was Section 106 funding which helped pay for The Hitchcock Gallery at Leytonstone Tube. The basis of this might have been making public transport facilities in the area more attractive and conducive so as to offset the increase in Tesco customer motor traffic in the area - an environmental agenda. Of course, I am speculating and their funding of that public art could have been for very different reasons and Adrian Stannard certainly made no reference to specific circumstances of any commercial development and the commissioning of new public art.    
During his talk, AS was generally sceptical about the integrity of ‘Section 106 Agreements’, saying in some instances they may verge on the corrupt and are, particularly for the layman, a confused and confusing civic grey area. Stannard speculated councils may be in receipt of various funds which are directed at similar elements of the same development and so it can be difficult to tell who has paid for what. If someone has reasonable cause to doubt a particular Section 106 Agreement there is a Local Government Ombudsman to complain to.
The local government ombudsman states planning permission is conditional on the developer first (my emphasis) entering into an agreement or obligation, more commonly referred to as a ‘Section 106 Agreement’ and once signed it is a legally binding contract. Developers can make an application knowing that they too can complain to the local government ombudsman and incur costs on a council if it takes an unduly long time to draw up the Section 106 Agreement. In this respect the agreement may give the larger developers powerful leverage in the application process which can subdue or obscure smaller local contingencies and objections - even when they are actually made as a part of the ‘legitimate’ planning process.
Elsewhere, objections to supermarket developments have taken on more radical and additional direct actions and strategies - Stokescroft being a prime example. If public art was to be one of the supermarket chain’s offsets there, then the local campaign against that store and company certainly did a lot to create its own counter/contra public art. Objections to supermarkets are those which could also be made against many other global retail businesses and it could be unfair to focus on Tesco but for the fact (?) Tesco is the UK’s leading grocer so has a huge and iconic influence on the character, culture and distinctiveness of the areas in which its stores reside. I know this from, in part, the experience of working on a small market garden/farm with a farm shop whose fruit and veg’ sales declined drastically when the nearby Tesco store installed new checkouts (I think they had new weighing scales) and their queues reduced in proportion to our loss of custom. We were not alone; a new and improved (metaphorical) supermarket bull dozer had rolled into town.      
Leytonstone is a business improvement district and developing high street commerce might be one of the strategies aimed at improving the economic/cultural life of the area. What influence does this initiative have on planning processes in terms of business development? How does public art, in its many guises, influence local commerce? Having participated in the E17 Art Trail, including post event discussions and evaluations, feedback has sometimes pointed to the economic benefits of art trails as more people are attracted to the area, sometimes from outside it as an excursion, and they spend money while visiting - more often in places away from the larger retail concerns. As part of the cultural life and identity of an area, an art trail may encourage people to move and settle there.
Adrian Stannard explored the cultural economic consequences of the planning process in more detail via the ongoing saga of the EMD Cinema and UKCG. One of his slides for this section of the talk featured a photograph from the planning committee meeting at Walthamstow Assembly Hall. The choice of that venue was his initiative. The photograph showed, chillingly and comically how the UKCG congregation had donned high visibility vests in order to make their self (corporately) known to the committee - a mass outing of construction site fluorescent yellow. What a hoot! Was it an out of order donning of a political uniform?   Hundreds of people were not able to get into the hall due to lack of space and, in answer to Adrian Stannard’s starting question, a plethora of inter-net/wireless based devices connected outside and inside establishing a contemporary form of participation.
Was this dull - a modestly proffered comment made by Adrian Stannard about the planning process at the beginning of his talk? Well, perhaps some of the slides were a bit dry, but his energy, commitment to, and knowledge of the subject outweighed this. There are, I suggest, quite a number of colourful public art works around and about the borough which could appropriately spice up the visual content of the slideshow.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

a field student of planning for unreality

Field Study’s Man in E17 has returned to something as close to the real (or is it still virtual?) world as he can get, following a particularly arduous ascent out from his navel. The navel gazing explorer lost control of his scale shifting capabilities and plummeted into the fibrous deeps of his psycho belly button. He can report it is a zone not for the faint hearted, as a variety of exotic entities reside there. Away from the omphalos and around and about in the decentring culture(s) of nowhere but E17, E11…

The Hitchcock Gallery - Leytonstone Tube

Field Study’s Man in E17 set out on the Leytonstone Arts Trail. He waited at Leytonstone Underground for the start of a guided walk and admired the Alfred Hitchcock themed mosaics adorning the entrances. The murals (The Hitchcock Gallery) are the work of Greenwich Mural Workshop. The web site outlines the scope of their public art practice. Back at Leytonstone Tube, there is a prominently displayed plaque which gives some of the social context of the mosaic murals. It reads,
‘These pictures were chosen by local people. The project was organised by the London Borough of Waltham Forest and supported by generous donations from Capital Challenge Funds, London Underground and Tesco.’
What are/were the agendas which brought these mosaics into being? What are Capital Challenge Funds and Tesco?  The pictures are there in the everyday commute; a colourful and pleasing celebration of an umbilical connection to one of the areas more eminent and accomplished offspring. At the time of unveiling the area  had experienced some seismic social and topographic shifts as a consequence of the (much contested) M11 Link Road. The demolition of a large part of the social fabric of the area was, perhaps predictably going to be followed by the projection of another more easily rendered aspect of the areas heritage. It would be interesting to find out who doesn’t know who/what Alfred Hitchcock is, and for whom the pictures are not so rooted in a heritage context. Perhaps as some sort of acknowledgment Hitchcock and Hollywood are not entirely culturally representative, Field Study’s Man recalls the unveiling included a display/show by Masquerade 2000, the locally based carnival arts organisation of national and international repute.  
Nearby, Graeme Miller’s, Linked, is a more critical and resonant exploration of the area’s past and the contemporary threads of the areas tapestry, or rather, pieces of it's mosaic.
The hazards of free open participation reared their ugly heads as a drunken bloke latched onto the walking party at the outset - the same bloke who had just reviled Field Study’s Man while the latter photographed some of the mosaics. Not for him then the pleasant sociability of an E11/E10 art walk; Field Study’s Man went in the opposite direction via the subway or art birth canal of Leytonstone Tube emerging close to ‘Time Terminus’, heading for 491 Gallery and the exciting prospect of a ‘Strange New Feeling’; a collaborative exhibition of work by artists Lily Johnson and Julia McKinlay.
It has been a long time since Field Study’s Man visited 491 Gallery on Grove Green Road and he was looking forward to seeing how the now relatively long established venue has progressed or developed. He had visited an exhibition there (c. 2001/2002) of photographs and other archival material about the building of the M11 Link Road and the galleries’ site specific connections to the road building/neighbourhood destruction. Alas, despite arriving at the gallery during the guides specified opening times, the place was not open and a strange new feeling courtesy of Johnson and Mckinlay was not to be had. Field Study’s Man recommends a visit to the virtual space of Lily Johnson’s web site nowhere but here.
Onwards in disappointment, ever in earshot of the violent rush of the nearby link road, described by the trail map as a leaden ravine, towards Norlington Road and Carne Griffiths’, Undergrowth. Field Study’s Man paused, listened and wondered if it is possible to hear the Linked voices without the listening equipment which can supposedly be accessed at Leytonstone Library. ‘Supposedly’, because, despite being advertised by Create, as an access point for the Linked listening  equipment, Leytonstone Library was not in possession of the equipment at the time of the Bookish event in May. Hopefully this inadequacy has been sorted out and anyone who heads for Leytonstone Library to get the equipment will not be disappointed.


Carne Griffiths, Undergrowth, work in progess, Leytonstone Arts Trail 2011

Carne Griffiths and his host were there and did not disappoint. Carne was in temporary residence, ink pot, pens and brushes in hand, detailing an inky up, down, in and out journey in the ‘Undergrowth’ of his imagination and observation. This was another wall piece, a mural of florally inscribed lining paper covering the entire surface of one side of the entrance hall and stairwell of an ordinary terraced house. ‘Undergrowth’, for the trail, is a work in progress, growing via an assortment of graphic techniques and treatments which Carne has developed to express a peculiar and recognisable style. Carne appeared relaxed about the scale of the drawing project, commenting the process is absorbingly therapeutic. I was interested in the presence of the written marks making up the floral forms - a sort of automatism or perhaps muscle memory according to the artist. There are obvious references to be made to William Morris’s wallpapers - this being Waltham Forest. Cinematically, I thought of, not Hitchcock, but Roman Polanski and ‘Repulsion’ and the terrible psychosis of the central character, Carole Ledoux, (Catherine Deneuvre). This is possibly a grotesque, macabre and antithetical association or projection to make given an agenda of sociability and accessibility the trail seeks to express. The home owner, to accommodate the artist, had repapered the wall and it appeared, for the duration of the cultivation of the mural, a detached flex might hang, out of reach but still visible, it’s tacks protruding like thorns - just one opportunity for the artist to temporarily arouse a spectre of the uncanny/unheimlich before such things are put back, hidden, in their proper place.


Some other encounters with ghostly intra and inter mural voices:

Ghost Signs off the Leytonstone High Road


Field study’s Man has still to give an account of play parks and edgescapes and most importantly News from Nowhere Club’s talk via Adrian Stannard (Waltham Forest Civic Society) about how the internet might encourage the public to engage in the planning process in Waltham Forest. Some cogitation on the allotment is in order before such ……