Sheffield riverscape (1)

I walked with Daisy along the River Don from the Wardsend cemetery to Neepsend. At Wardsend, we started off a little way down the railway lines that run stark and clean through the undulating and overgrown cemetery, then veered off to follow the river itself, along the newly surfaced track that cuts through the vast mounds of debris – spolia from demolished works? – that loom either side. The electricity pylons hummed and crackled overhead and the thunderous engines of quad bikes rumbled and reverberated in an undefinable distance.

Everywhere we walk, waste. And amidst the waste, lilac and jack-in-the-hedge. The river bank is strewn with tyres and bottles and fast food wrappers, mattresses and plastic chairs, podgy black bin bags. A sign screwed to one of the metal kissing gates put there to stop the quad bikes : fly tippers – we are watching you.

At Wardsend, on the hill amidst the silver birch, there has been a fire. Graves squat in scorched earth, black tipped tendrils clasping shards of stone, displacing fragments of Victorian ironwork.

The Hillsborough playing fields are to our right. A man in a vermilion jersey sparks across the pitch. A sheep’s skull – or perhaps it is just a carrier bag – is revealed, briefly, as the river washes across it. Bottle-green, muddy mallards drift.

Neepsend. Eviscerated drag cars and deserted roads, leading to an empty, elevated horizon.

Inflecting time’s arrow, or the art of exploring impossibilities

Inflecting time’s arrow, or the art of exploring impossibilities

‘The city is an oeuvre, closer to a work of art than a simple material product’ (Henri Lefebvre, The Right to the City, 1968).

When the French philosopher and sociologist Henri Lefebvre called for ‘the right to the city’ in his 1968 book, Le Droit à la ville, he was not making the case for the redistribution of urban property. Instead, he was advocating the democratic right of the people to participate in and to appropriate the city as oeuvre (artwork). By this he meant that the ideal city, for him, would be one that is worked perpetually by its inhabitants and that this process of inhabiting (in other words making and re-making the city) would take priority over consuming ready-made cityscapes (or habitats). The city he evokes (and which he describes as the properly urban) is a working site, characterized by disequilibrium, unpredictability, desire and encounter, a place that survives ‘in the fissures of planned and programmed order’ (Lefebvre, 1996: p. 129). It is a space of untold possibilities, in which the meaning of what is and what can be remains (perpetually) at stake. By contrast, capitalist logic forecloses the possibility of making new meanings in and of the city. It transforms the use value of the city into exchange value, concealing the emancipatory plasticity of the site with the hard signs and values of profit. In the capitalist city, the inhabitant, the user of the city, is instead conceived as a consumer of signs, a client to be kept happy. The city as a place of consumption, Lefebvre reminds us, goes hand in hand with this idea of the consumption of place.

Fredric Jameson famously wrote that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to envisage the end of capitalism. Lefebvre applies similar thinking to the capitalist city, noting that we often perceive it as being ‘as full as an egg or as an entirely written page’ (Lefebvre, 1996: p. 104), a physical and ideological space in which there is little or no opportunity for us to intervene or make significant change. Certainly, it seems that all too often the only ‘wiggle room’ we’re able to imagine for ourselves remains contained within dominant ideological structures.

For example, in Britain, it seems that we find it very difficult to imagine the city centre as anything other than ‘the high street’. It’s true that shops have, historically, influenced the morphological structure of our city centres. Their streets and architecture were constructed for the purpose of trade and a whole social structure grew up around the actions of browsing, buying, conversing and taking refreshment between purchases. Still today, street furniture and the layout of pedestrianized areas point to shopping as a key factor in city centre design and planning. However, the economic crisis, the rise of online shopping and other factors including the number of available car parking places and the proliferation of out-of-town malls have together produced a sharp downturn in the numbers of consumers who choose to shop on the high street. Since 2007, nearly 300 major UK retailers have gone under (affecting almost 2500 stores) and countless small businesses have closed their doors. Between 2009-2011, city centre vacancy rates doubled. What we’ve inherited, then, on the high street is a form that is increasingly without function, and yet literally set in stone.

There’s a left-right consensus in government that as much as possible must be done to keep city centre shops open. Money has been made available through some high-profile schemes to ‘re-think the high street’ and despite the introduction in 2014 of a new PDR (permitted development right) it still remains difficult to convert retail properties into residential accommodation, the thinking being that the latter doesn’t create long-term jobs and salaries. Mary Portas, who headed up a review commissioned by government in 2011, described its aims thus: ‘once we invest in and create social capital in the heart of our communities, the economic capital will follow’. In other words (and this is underscored by the first of the review’s five headline recommendations – that town centres should be ‘run like businesses’), the point for her is that the means of producing capital might need to change, but capital as an end remains unchanged. It seems also that even many ‘grassroots’ initiatives to re-think and re-make our city centres also remain grounded in doing retail, even if they are claim to be doing retail differently. The glut of ‘alternative’ pop-up shops, window displays by local artists and other ‘meanwhile’ solutions, all of which shore up the premise that this is but an economic hiatus, neither challenge the neoliberal status quo or respond usefully and creatively to the irrefutable downturn in city centre shopping. Instead, they paper over the cracks of a socio-economic model that requires not so much an aesthetic sticking plaster as a radical structural overhaul. The ideology of consumption – that is, the idea of the city centre as a space to be consumed and a space in which to consume – remains intact.

So what should we make of Lefebvre’s call for the city to be inhabited as oeuvre? As artwork? In fact, the connection between art and the modern capitalist city is a difficult and ambivalent one. In the nineteenth century, while the Impressionists embarked on their radical attempt to capture something of the fleeting, rapidly changing quality of industrialising cities such as Paris and London, Baron Haussmann – the self-proclaimed ‘demolition artist’ responsible for dramatically re-making the urban fabric of the French capital – commissioned photographers to make propagandistic ‘before and after’ images that would be used to persuade the people of Paris of the social usefulness of an initiative born largely, in fact, of military, political and financial interests. Similarly today, art is harnessed to the needs of the regenerating, branded city. Artists, when they are not asked to work for free, are offered financial incentives to package and sell their practice as product to the public and private corporations who manage our cityscapes. ‘Percentage for art’ schemes variously request or require of developers of residential, commercial and public space a small percentage of their overall budget for the purposes of commissioning art that will be publicly sited. This is perceived as ‘adding value’ to regeneration and ‘enriching’ urban space. Artists are also employed to work with communities whose landscapes are being transformed or ‘regenerated’, with a view to encouraging the latter’s ‘buy-in’ to the project and reinforcing the illusion that they have some creative say in what is happening. Beyond these funded opportunities, there are also, of course, invitations to sell artworks in pop-up shops and galleries, or make street art, or window displays in the now defunct retail spaces described just a moment ago… And then, at another level again, there’s the infamous ‘Bilbao effect’. Every city worth its salt wants a contemporary art space (with gift shop attached) that draws in the tourists, drives the economy, draws inward investment and renews the urban fabric, though since the crisis of 2008 art’s magical effects can of course no longer be guaranteed…

Writing in the middle of the last century, Lefebvre was alert to the dangers of art’s problematic complicity in the top-down meaning making of the capitalist city, yet also keenly aware of its critical and creative potential. He writes:

To put art at the service of the urban does not mean to prettify urban space with works of art. This parody of the possible is a caricature. Rather, [we argue] that time-spaces become works of art and that former art reconsiders itself as source and model of appropriation of space and time. (Lefebvre, 1996: p. 173)

Through this prism, art is reconceived as ‘a capacity to transform reality, to appropriate at the highest level the facts of the “lived”, of time, space, the body and desire’ (Lefebvre, 1996: p. 164). The space-time of the city, rather than being endured or accepted with passive resignation (ibid, pp. 156-157), becomes the very material from which the properly urban might be sculpted. In other words, the city itself should be understood as a plastic object, the consistency, form and texture of which are at one level determined by what has been, yet the stakes and future of which remain open to (re)appropriation by its inhabitants. It is in this sense, and in contrast to the ‘full egg’ model of the capitalist city, that Lefebvre perceives a gap between the fact of the city and its practice. To inhabit the city is, for Lefebvre, synonymous with critical art practice; it involves interrogating, and more specifically denaturalising, what is and, consequently, what it seems must follow, by exposing their radical contingency. To inhabit the city, in other words, is to imagine that all this might be otherwise.

The works made in the context of the plastiCities project share a common interest in reconfiguring the fact of the city, its objects, sounds and signs. For example, in Is this not a wasteland? Richard Ward destabilises dominant urban taxonomies and re-opens the hermeneutic complexity of ‘wasteland’, which is in fact a discursive ideological production, to other configurations of interpretation and intervention. The compositions sculpted from ordinary and everyday sounds found on and near the Furnace Park site can be heard through listening posts engineered by Thom Wilson, Sam Varcoe and Ben Wadsworth. With ingenuity and craftsmanship they extracted empty paint tins from the cycle of consumption and obsolescence to re-make them as conductors of sound. Similarly, David McLeavy’s stark images decontextualize objects found at Furnace Park. These empty cans of spray paint, rusting padlocks and photocells, along with the lumps of industrial stuff that we simply cannot identify, are a reflection on the processes of production, releasing the labour and forces embedded in the commodity of the ‘steel city’. An archive of the obsolete, McLeavy makes no recommendation as to what use this archive might be put, other than inviting us to contemplate its possibilities.

Lefebvre, as we have seen, describes a gap between the fact of the city and its practice, between what the city is and what we make of it (literally and conceptually). This gap, for him, is the space of politics, agency and engagement; it is the space in which we might deflect time’s arrow, interrupting the ‘natural progress’ of capitalism’s logic and recalibrating what we are made to understand is possible and impossible. This deflection, or interruption, is how we have interpreted the political valence of détournement and derive. The event of art institutes a space for thought, a critical distance from what is, and – very simply – creates the conditions for exploring impossibilities.

‘Art is not, in the first instance, political because of the messages and sentiments it conveys concerning the state of the world. Neither is it political because of the manner in which it might choose to represent society’s structures, or social groups, their conflicts or identities. It is political because of the very distance it takes with respect to these functions, because of the type of space and time that it institutes, and the manner in which it frames this time, peoples this space’. (Deranty, 2014: p. 23).

Amanda Crawley Jackson & Martin Elms, 2015.

An essay written to accompany our work being shown in The Art of Wandering exhibition at 35 Chapel Walk gallery, July-August 2015.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Deranty, Jean-Philippe, Jacques Rancière: Key Concepts (London: Routledge, 2014).

Lefebvre, Henri, Writings on Cities, translated and edited by Eleonore Kofman and Elizabeth Lebas (Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 1996).

Rancière, Jacques, The Emancipated Spectator, translated by Gregory Elliott (London: Verso, 2009).

Furnace Park // a free magazine

We’re pleased to announce that a free magazine about the first year of Furnace Park is now available as a pdf download:

Furnace Park Magazine

The magazine includes articles by Amanda Crawley Jackson, Matt Cheeseman, Luke Bennett, Ivan Rabodzeenko, Katja Porohina, Jane Hodson, Joseph Moore, Millie Travis and Nathan Adams.

After September 2nd, 2000 free print copies will be distributed across Sheffield. Watch this space for details of where you can get your hands on one!

If you’d like to volunteer at Furnace Park, please email Amanda Crawley Jackson (a.j.jackson@sheffield.ac.uk) for more information or visit the Furnace Park website

Furnace Park goes live

We’re pleased to announce that Furnace Park has been granted planning permission (see all the related documents here) and we now have the keys to the site. This means the project is finally going live and we can start to programme our talks, exhibitions and other events we’ve planned for the course of the summer and autumn this year.

Visit the Furnace Park website for more information about the projects that are taking place on the site and feel free to email Dr Amanda Crawley Jackson (a.j.jackson@sheffield.ac.uk) for more information.

The Furnace Park project is generously supported by Roxspur Measurement and Control Ltd., DLA Piper (Sheffield), Arts Enterprise and the University of Sheffield. Partners include SKINN, plastiCities and Engineers Without Borders.

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All photographs by Amanda Crawley Jackson, 2013.

Introducing Furnace Park – Live Project video

In late 2012, a group of students from the University of Sheffield School of Architecture (SS0A) developed a plan for Furnace Park. Working in collaboration with SKINN, plastiCities (the group that heads up occursus’ live projects) and Cristina Cerulli (SSoA/Studio Polpo), they designed and made prototypes of a number of modular systems that can be made cheaply and quickly from locally sourced, reused and recycled materials.

Furnace Park // Some Background

Furnace Park is a Sheffield-based project engaging artists, architects, students, community groups and a range of researchers from across the disciplines to develop an external exhibition and performance space on an abandoned brownfield site in a former industrial quarter in Sheffield. Creative practitioners and researchers from the arts are leading on the project in collaboration with SKINN, with the aim of testing on site knowledges typically marginalised by discourses of planning and urbanism (literature, philosophy, history, fine art, for example). A series of transdisciplinary collaborations taking as their research question the design, representation and practice of the city will result and have already resulted in exhibitions, performances, talks, symposia, model making, temporary constructions and a variety of durational interventions.

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We came across the site (an acre and a half of buddleia, concrete, wild poppies and detritus owned by Sheffield City Council) in the course of a programme of urban walks led by occursus, a loose, transdisciplinary spatial studies research group founded by Amanda Crawley Jackson at the University of Sheffield in 2010. It was once home to Daniel Doncaster’s foundry, established in 1778 ‘to apply the crucible steel making process to the manufacture of hand tools’. An 18th-century cementation furnace, now a scheduled monument, still stands at the southern entrance to the site, sectioned off within the HSBC staff car park, and lends its name to our project: Furnace Park. In August 1886, the wall of a warehouse in which Doncasters were storing steel and iron bars collapsed, killing eight children from the slum housing nearby who were playing beneath it. Other than some short notices in the News of the World at the time of the inquest and a sketch in The Illustrated Police Review of September 1886, the incident has slipped virtually without trace into the thick field of unwritten industrial histories.

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The slum houses (arranged in clusters of ‘courts’) were cleared in the 1920s and in 1931, a children’s playground was opened on the upper part of the site, at the corner of Doncaster Street and Matthew Street. Doncaster’s stockyard, situated on the lower part of the site, was demolished in the 1950s and, as Luke Bennett explains, the Council went on to use the site to house the offices and workshops of its municipal Lighting Department. The site is now littered with the spolia of all of these constructions, bricks and bits of piping lying in heaps around the perimeter. Two large stones that we think topped the Victorian gateway lie heavily in the shadow of the derelict works that adjoin the site on Doncaster Street.

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The site, an awkward palimpsest, is a blank-not-blank space; a post-traumatic, post-industrial landscape of the kind we find all over our cities, in the cracks produced within an urban order structured by cycles of development and decay, occupation and abandonment, investment and neglect. Luke Bennett describes the irreducible tension between the site’s absence and surplus of meaning:

I hear no voices. There are no ghosts of activity here. The only legacies are those I see (bricks) and sense in the ground (contamination). The emptiness of this site does not deliver to me an upwelling of the past as an occupied place. But I do sense the ghosts that Michel de Certeau sees stalking the inner-city: “seemingly sleepy, old-fashioned things, defaced houses, closed-down factories, the debris of shipwrecked histories [which] still today raise up the ruins of an unknown, strange city.” (1998: 133)

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In fact, we have a surplus of documentation about this patch of contaminated land in central Sheffield. We made the decision early on that rather than occupy the site in a clandestine way – to trespass or squat, make an ephemeral intervention – we wanted to have the experience of making space differently; of working within the planning system to test its edges and push its boundaries; to create, by developing and using minor practices, an other – sustainable – space within the major spatial language of urban regeneration. For this, we learned, we have to have public liability insurance, 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. The project thus unfurls in a bureaucratic legal framework that few of us had anticipated and which collides 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; 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.

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We have had to commission environmental (contamination) surveys, topographical surveys, assets searches and, most recently, a UXB survey.  We have worked with the police to think about access to the site and the problems of metal theft and vandalism. We have a project folder running to over 200 pages of tabulated data, diagrams and maps, which still gives us only a partial reading of the thick space it purports to contain and circumscribe.

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All photographs by Andy Brown, 2013.

Hull (again)

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The Reckitts chimney stands 141m tall. Located on Morley Street in Hull, it’s where Reckitts, in 1884, began making synthetic ultramarine (often known as dolly blue). Used as a laundry product, ultramarine prevents the yellowing of white fabric when it is washed and enhances the brightness of colours. It is now widely used in the cosmetics, paints and automobile industries.

Natural ultramarine was derived  from ground lapis lazuli, sourced in the mountains of Afghanistan. Artists reserved the use of this expensive bright blue pigment for their most important (usually religious) works. Cennino Cennini (b. c.1370 – c. 1440) described it as “illustrious, beautiful, and most perfect, beyond all other colors”. Vermeer used natural ultramarine extensively (Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, 1663-1664). In 1828, the French chemist Jean-Baptiste Guimet developed a synthetic equivalent, which was used for example by Renoir (Les Parapluies, c. 1880), Monet (Gare St Lazare, 1877) and Pissarro (La Côte des boeufs, 1877).

For decades, the chimney pumped sulphur dioxide into Hull’s atmosphere. My grandparents lived in Stoneferry, the area in which this factory was located. I remember the sweet smells drifting from the cocoa processing plant on Cleveland Street and the hot metallic tang of the factories by the river.

(Image licensed under Creative Commons; http://www.mylearning.org/local-history-pack–a-how-to-guide/images/2-1838/)