Furnace Park // an introduction on the cusp of an opening

In summer 2012, occursus – a loose collective of artists, writers, researchers and students that coalesced around a weekly reading group I had set up with Laurence Piercy from the School of English at the University of Sheffield – organised a series of Sunday-morning walks along unplanned routes in Shalesmoor, Kelham Island and Neepsend. As we looped through the chaotic mix of derelict Victorian works, flat-pack-quick-build apartment blocks, converted factories and student residences, sharing stories and sometimes, quite simply, wondering what on earth we were doing there, without umbrellas, in the rain, we came across the acre and a half of brownfield scrubland we’ve named Furnace Park. In collaboration with Matt Cheeseman (from the University of Sheffield’s School of English), Nathan Adams (a research scientist working in the Hunter Laboratory at the University of Sheffield), Ivan Rabodzeenko and Katja Porohina (founders of SKINN – the Shalesmoor, Kelham Island and Neepsend Network), we’ve been working for over a year now to obtain planning permissions, finalise the lease, clear the site, fundraise and establish a network of partners who have brought their own vital expertise to this experiment in place-making.

So what is Furnace Park? Maybe it’s best to start with what it isn’t. It’s not a children’s playground; it’s not a carefully planted urban oasis and nor is it a readymade space for leisure and the consumption of culture. Furnace Park is a process, rather than a product. A site of collective agency, it brings together groups and individuals who are interested in exploring what can be done with a brownfield site. It’s a project founded on the premise that place-making involves a multiplicity of voices and a sneaking suspicion that right here, right now, the most ‘salutary changes in our world [might] come from a creative social body rather than from the political sphere’ (Andermatt Conley 2012: 109). We’d like to think that Furnace Park is a community-enabling place, although this community is no doubt a temporary and heterogeneous one, grounded in a commitment to shared work rather than a shared identity; to difficult and provocative conversations rather than consultation and consensus. It’s an arts-led space, in the sense that we have adopted and embraced the methodologies of art as a critical and engaged practice that enables alternative perceptions and understandings of the real (Locas 2010). Art as process, then, rather than art as object. A disruptive laboratory, the space seeks to curate and host strange encounters between researchers and creative practitioners, fostering indiscipline rather than interdisciplinarity through the practice of conceptual unhoming. Furnace Park is about the urban as oeuvre – a collectively produced and ongoing, open (art) work. It’s about thinking through how the arts can be involved structurally and methodologically in the production of the urban, rather than at the level of marketing, consumption and decoration. It’s about encouraging, through arts-led practice, ‘the emergence of [a] critical relation to the normal and habitual’. A commitment, then, to ‘moving between multiple ways of seeing the world’ (Locas 2010: 18); to growing – through the chance afforded by localisation, simultaneity and encounter – a radical imaginary that might construe and produce the urban (even if always provisionally) beyond the hegemonic agendas of regeneration, tourism and economic leverage. An imaginary that might take up the call to disrupt the logic of capitalist realism (Fisher 2009) and disclose other possibilities, other perceptions of the urban real, thereby mobilising a counterpoint to the pervasive and influential mantra: there is no other way.

So the intention, at least, of Furnace Park isn’t to contribute to the regeneration of Shalesmoor, although we are working with a site that many people locally have described as ‘an eyesore’, an abandoned and neglected space that encourages anti-social behaviour. (It’s interesting, actually, that the crime figures for this area are very low – another example of how hegemonic, learned perceptions construct and shape our encounter with the real.) We haven’t arrived with the intention of doing good, or of enabling economic growth, attracting business to the area or bodies into beds, or even making an aestheticizing intervention in the area. It’s true, however, that we are part of an already ongoing and dynamic process. There’s a thriving vintage emporium, critically acclaimed real ale pubs, a chic restaurant, some vibrant cafés, recording studios, artist studios, media labs and a handful of exhibition spaces and clubs that attract substantial audiences from across the city. The public transport links are good, it’s within walking distance of the city centre and there’s plenty of rented accommodation already attracting students and young professionals. It remains to be seen what effect these classic ingredients of gentrification will have on the area in the future. What will happen to the social housing and small manufacturing companies?  What effect will projects such as our own have on the sex workers and drug users who inhabit the streets and peripheries of local spaces such as the Furnace Park site? What does it mean for us to deem this space a wasteland? What is the power of taxonomy and to whom is it granted? Who and what will be displaced by our re-appropriation? What are – and what will be – the politics of this place?

I’m conscious of the fact that in opening up these questions, which remain to be answered (even as we struggle with them now), I still haven’t answered the question, frequently posed, of what Furnace Park is an what it will look like. It’s a two-level site, split between an events/exhibition area and a semi-curated urban wildscape. There will be facilities for outdoors exhibitions, an external screening space, live research projects, residencies, talks, performances and other kinds of public intervention. It will open, like a gallery, for events and exhibitions because we can’t afford right now to keep it open 24/7. It will be available for use by community groups and we welcome proposals from artists, activists, curators and other cultural practitioners for interventions of all kinds on site. We’re committed to having artists in residence and want to work collaboratively with groups and individuals who’d like to be involved and bring their own ideas to our collective table. We’re not building any permanent structures, but we are making furniture (seating, billboards, screens and tables) from found, re-cycled and re-used materials in the context of a series of hands-on, participatory workshops facilitated by SKINN at CADS (Creative Arts Development Space).

‘It is characteristic of an abruptly major thought to know what it is doing, to know in which operations it is involved’ (Tiqqun 2011: 165). We made the decision early on in the Furnace Park project that rather than occupy the site in a clandestine way – to trespass or squat, or make an ephemeral intervention – we wanted to have the experience of making space differently, but to work also within the planning system in order to test its edges and push its boundaries; to create, by developing and using minor, tactical practices, an other – sustainable – space within a major spatial language. To make Furnace Park, we have had to put in place public liability insurance, do first aid training, provide water and toilet facilities, produce and approve a risk assessment for all stages of the project (including construction, events and dismantling), agree the terms of a licence and seek planning permission. We have had to commission environmental (contamination) surveys, topographical surveys, assets searches and an unexploded bomb (UXB) survey.  We have worked with the police to think through safety issues and the problems of metal theft and vandalism. We have a project folder running to over 200 pages of tabulated data, diagrams, maps and protocols, which still gives us only a partial reading of the thick space it purports to contain and circumscribe. The project has thus unfurled in a bureaucratic legal framework that few of us had anticipated and which collides, still now, with our desire to create a loose space; an open work that is responsive to the contingencies of our encounters, dialogues and discoveries. And yet, through this collision of practices and priorities, we have come to understand some of the ways in which city-making works (and also the vacuity of a purportedly unitary urban real); the networks of power and finance that can sanction a project or stop it in its tracks; the many lines and forces which intersect on our site and amidst which we are, of necessity, obliged to work, even if that is with a view to subverting and inflecting them.

In Ghost Milk, his meandering reflection on the redevelopment of London’s East End in preparation for the 2012 Olympics, Iain Sinclair writes:

You could not nominate, in all of London, more challenging ground for a landscape blitz, a ticking-clock assault on the devastated residue of industrial history: insecticide and fertilizer works, paint factories, distillers of gin, gas-mantle manufacturers, bone grinders, importers of fish mush, seething dunes of radiant maggots.

Waste: dumped, buried. Disturbed. Distributed.

Decay.

Putrefaction.

(Sinclair 2011: 338)

Much of Sheffield, like the East End of London, is a ‘damaged topography’ (Sinclair 2011: 61), ‘bad turf’ with a ‘suppressed history’ (Sinclair 2003: 71). The environmental survey we commissioned concluded that the Furnace Park site in fact represents a low risk, despite the long industrial history of the Shalesmoor area, but advised that we should avoid breaking the ground and cover the site with a membrane in order to minimise the risk of exposure to contamination. We can’t afford remediation, so this perceived risk of contamination structures our relationship with the site. Its back stories leak messily into our present, the ‘memory-mud’ (Sinclair 2011: 59) clogging all transcendental ambition and lending the site its own agency. We work around root balls, because we can’t remove them. We can’t drill down into the concrete or rubble in order to secure our temporary constructions and we can’t lay any foundations, so we have to find other ways of securing structures. But it’s in our engagement with these difficulties that we are perhaps most aware of the interface between our own embodied presence and the site’s dynamic materiality. Richard Sennett has suggested that it is precisely at this resistive ‘fulcrum point’, this ‘live edge’, that we might develop skill (Sennett 2009: 230, 229). It becomes ‘a zone for productive work’ (Sennett 2009: 230), where we must learn to reformat problems and readjust our behaviours (Sennett 2009: 222). The site is not a blank or a void; its textures and resonance demand improvisation and handiness, a willingness to learn on the ground. Through a process of patient experimentation, we’re learning to develop and make the tools needed for the job; to respond to contingencies and practise détour(nement). For Sennett, these are all ‘imaginative processes’ that ‘enable us to become better at doing things’ (Sennett 2009: 10). Furnace Park is not about disengaging from the world or making ‘unreal’ or unfeasible propositions. It is, rather, about working intimately with and within the resistive manifoldness of space and in so doing release responses to questions we hadn’t even realised needed to be posed.

Just one certainty, then: the site won’t be finished until it closes.

Amanda Crawley Jackson, 2013

Works Cited

Andermatt Conley, Verena, Spatial Ecologies: Urban Sites, State and World-Space in French Cultural Theory (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2012).

Fisher, Mark, Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative? (London: Zero Books, 2009).

Lefebvre, Henri, Writings on Cities, translated and edited by Eleonore Kofman and Elizabeth Lebbas (Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 1995).

Locas, Marie-Chantal, ‘Visual Resistance at the US-Mexico Border: Border Art as a Force of Change’, working paper presented at “Politics in Hard Times: International Relations Responses to the Financial Crisis” SGIR 7th Pan-European Conference on IR, Stockholm, 2010. http://stockholm.sgir.eu/uploads/Locas_SGIR%202010.pdf [Accessed July 29 2013]

Sennett, Richard, The Craftsman (London: Penguin, 2009).

Sinclair, Iain, London Orbital (London: Penguin, 2003).

—– Ghost Milk: Calling Time on the Grand Project (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2011).

Tiqqun, This is not a programme, translated from the French by Joshua David Jordan (Boston: MIT Press, 2011).

 

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