The post-industrial limbo: it's a scenario in which city councils, landowners and town planners jostle and dance with land profit-margins, while members of the public romanticise, fear or simply dismiss brownfields as 'undesirables.' I, myself growing up in Stoke-on-Trent, garnered a generic apathy towards the ex-industrial sites – many of which continued to surface long into the 1990s and 2000s. As an adult, now in my late 20s, I have been privy to artistic responses which reframe these marginalised spaces as places of social and ecological value. This summer's Brownfield Block Party – a melange of Improv, Northern Soul, Turncoats chatter, Bingo, Co-Building and a whole lot of Wigan Salad – is a prime example that changes afoot.
Hosted by The Oasis Social Club (TOSC) – an ongoing pop-up platform for debate and some light-hearted humour – the two-day Brownfield Block Party took place on the now derelict site of the former Spode Works Glazing Laboratory in order to facilitate conversations on the uses of post-industrial space. Devised by artist Rebecca Davies as the final stage of her Monthly Matics, the event sought to alter our perspective of a brownfield site – simply by alerting audiences to the fact that the land was, temporarily, for public use; fencing was drawn back and LED guide lights illuminated the way to TOSC's “part entertainment venue, part discussion space.”
TOSC's appearance – illustrated from head-to-toe with Davies's characteristic drawings and typography – yields curiosity. Here, was an 'alien' glasshouse planted, overnight, on a forgotten piece of land. And yet, it was totally at home in the midst of its very own urban desert: the white floor-tiles left behind from the glazing-days dazzled in the Potteries-sun, while vivacious Buddleia sprouted up between the cracks like cacti. Inside, pork scratchings and scampi n' chip-snacks adorned a makeshift bar and a shimmering curtain backed the participants' stage – a fictional revamp of the Working Men's Clubs, animated further by Davies's alter-ego Barb and her pals Mags (Morven Mulgrew) and Trace (Sarah Blanc).
Stay Flexible! provided an ideal kick-start to the day, with performance artist Chloe Cooper leading an improv session to get those expression-juices going ready for the ensuing debate. Draped in a patch-work sea-sponge, Cooper talked her audience through the stages of discussion with moves including “taking a position, being swayed, sticking to your guns and u-turns.” It loosened up any staunch faces and limbs, seeking to free up preconceptions harboured by her audience. Next came the Turncoats Debate: Glazing Over The Cracks, which surged into action with a quote from Finn Williams, “Heritage relies on belief over truth, persuasion over proof: it satisfies us and comforts us only by freeing itself from authenticity” (The Future of Heritage: ARC 11).
Paul Williams (Culture, Education & Tourism Consultant) and Olivia Bright (Exhibitions & Campaigns Assistant, Historic England) put forward the case for preserving Stoke's Potteries heritage – it being part of the region's identity – while Anna Francis (Associate Professor Fine Art, Staffordshire University & AirSpace Gallery Co-Director) and Joseph Hamblin (Architecture & Social-Practices Postgraduate, Central Saint Martins) looked towards a “new future,” suggesting notions such as a garden-city to overcome a post-industry paralysis. In keeping with the Turncoats ethos, the panelists switched stances part-way, feeding the opposing party's values back to one another.
A lighter note – and lighter footsteps – ensued with Barb, Mags and Trace breaking up quizzical minds with a spritely dance-routine to Gerry Rafferty's Baker Street. Return of the Pack, The Tabards launched audiences into the evening's entertainment: Tombola and Bingo was complimented by an excellent bar was run by local-foodies The Slamwich Club. Continuing well into the evening, Northern Soul dancers Poppy Beresford and Sally Molloy enlivened the brownfield site with live performances of a much-loved, but forgotten art-form to music by DJ Calum Murphy. Fittingly, in recognition of the contemporary ceramicists now practicing at Spode, live clay visuals by Alice Thatcher and Jo Ayre unfolded on a projected screen as the night drew in.
Sunday, just as content-packed, began with a discussion with AirSpace Gallery's Brownfield Research Centre Resident artists. Chaired by Glen Stoker, AirSpace Co-Director, the conversation shed light on the Gallery's ongoing research in recognising the social and ecological benefits of these sites – not as eye-sores but as spaces for creativity. It also concluded this summer's residencies – which are the beginning of a long-term response to brownfields in collaboration with the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery. Each artist approached these environments in varying ways: Lucy as lunar landscapes; Victoria as transitional spaces filled with motion; Edward as trespasser's land; Rodrigo as a threshold for archaeological remains; and Anna as a site for urban ecologies.
The notion of land returning to public ownership was put forward by Glen: still, an audience-member was quick to observe that care must be taken when taking possession of anything that has been left to flourish and thrive without human intervention. In speaking of a type of “common-land,” it made sense to move onto the work of Agile City in Glasgow. In conversation with Davies, Rob Morrison and Helen Teeling talked through their work which disrupts the exclusivity of culture by including a wide-range of people in their architectural projects – one such initiative is Common Block, a specially designed BBQ co-build. After a weekend of chatting and motion-making (in every sense,) the BBQ co-build and cook was a tangible experience with fast results.
With a halloumi skewer and beer in hand, a communal sense of achievement chimed through people's conversations: Common Block drew the Brownfield Block Party to a collaborative conclusion. Ahead of the event, TOSC stated that it set out to “challenge people's assumptions by taking ownership of a space that is commonly viewed as neglected and shine a light on the social possibilities of post industrial space,” something which it adhered to with integrity (and a sense of humour.) In inhabiting a non-habitable space for two days, TOSC mediated an alternative relationship between the ex-Glazing Lab site and members of the public – no matter how briefly an individual stood in the disused plot, they became part of a community on ordinarily restricted land.
What comes next? Having discussed the pros and cons of heritage versus newer investments; rattled our preconceptions with a memo to “stay flexible;” listened to artistic interpretations of what is considered a no-man's land; and successfully built a community BBQ, the post-industrial limbo remains. The Brownfield Block Party has proven how a brownfield can be a social space – simply by staging a weekend event on ex-industrial turf: but how are the sentiments garnered at TOSC transported to policy makers and council members? There's more to be done, but the Brownfield Block Party has already illustrated how these environments can be fruitful platforms for social change – even if only for a momentary work-out.
The Oasis Social Club: Brownfield Block Party by Rebecca Davies took place at Spode Works, Stoke-on-Trent, 21-22 July 2018.