Seek permission or ask for forgiveness? Activating art on the High Street.
For a few years, I co-produced an event in Birmingham called Eye Candy. It was set up as a bi-annual illustration and design event where we invited international, UK and locally-based artists and illustrators to paint walls, host workshops and talks, and sell affordable art.
The event was originally produced in partnership with Southside BID (home to the city’s Gay Village and Chinese Quarter) and the BID’s manager Julia was instrumental in brokering relationships with local businesses and getting permission for us to paint on the side of buildings, car park walls and erect work on disused spaces (as well as dangle giant inflatable tentacles out of empty office block windows).
This ‘permission’ was something that emboldened us. We felt better prepared to have conversations with people and share a vision of an outdoor gallery of beautiful works. When challenged (which happened only occasionally) we were able to tell people: ‘Hey it’s OK we have permission — just go and check if you need to’.
With our work in Dudley, we decided that we’d shift our focus out of the city and to the town.
There’s little arts provision in Dudley Town — no art gallery in the town or space to exhibit, show work or perform. There’s little space for creatives to convene or workshop ideas. There’s a distinct lack of colour and creativity on our end of the High Street but plenty of places to add some (on to the empty shops, doorways and shutters that remain ever-closed).
Our previous works on walls have taught us a lot and we’ve been fortunate to travel around to see plenty of other cities that make good use of outdoor galleries (from the famous warehouse walls of Wynwood Miami and mural projects in Philadelphia to the Dutch streets of Amsterdam and Rotterdam, the annual Up Fest in Bristol (this year a virtual event) and even the mountains of the Alps in the ski resort of Crans Montana for Vision Arts Fest).
One thing that has been common in all of these places we’ve visited, and for the organisers of each festival or event, is the need and requirement for permission: Permission to paint, permission to bring colour, permission to make good that which has been left to decay.
We understand that there are laws in place around vandalism; but we’re not talking graffiti tags here. We’re talking about making good on places that have been left behind and producing works with and for people that will have meaning to those that live, work and visit. And of course we want to embed our lab principles and nurture a culture of curiosity across Dudley town centre.
Being scared to activate…
It isn’t that easy to get up and paint a wall; it takes confidence to start to change a space that doesn’t belong to you. Our problem on the High Street is usually about understanding (or knowing) who owns what.
Even when you do know people are scared to agree, can’t be bothered or want to know how much it will cost them (nothing — we’ll do it for free JUST to make it look better). There’s usually always some scepticism; no matter how much enthusiasm, prepared planning or co-design options you offer up.
When we started to ‘Paint Dudley’ we didn’t get permission (shush) despite lots of attempts to try. The spaces we chose were dirty, untouched and unloved, so we took a guess that no-one would care. Our two artists just got to work. Who could complain if we were cleaning a space up and making it look better?
Nothing is permanent about our work — everything can be re-painted back-to-bland if the building owners wish — but for 12 months there have been no issues with our commissioned pieces.
What we did find when our artists were painting the walls is that people were interested: They asked: ‘What’s opening?’, ‘What are you doing?’, ‘Why are you doing it?’.
And of course, someone asked: ‘Do you have permission?’
“This freedom to act and absence of restrictive permissions is unfamiliar territory for most participants. A fear of needing permission prior to action, or an expectation that the permission would not be forthcoming litters many of the conversations with participants. Some Doers described not knowing if it is ‘OK’ to get involved, let alone co-design the space, enterprise, or experience.
The lab team draw on lessons from social change agents like Pam Warhurst (Incredible Edible) — whose ‘don’t ask, just do’ approach echoes the team attitude to encouraging an equitable action bias that disrupts hierarchy and emboldens doing.” Jo Orchard-Webb - Detectorism Insights #1.
Even when you DO have permission it doesn’t always filter down to everyone who needs to know. We have had two projects (one with Tom Bloor and another with Zoot) that used paste-ups to cover walls. Each piece was ‘cleaned’ off by street teams who hadn’t been briefed by those who had given the permission.
When you get caught out… art activism
The work on Dudley High Street stemmed from workshops with people from around the area — our artists Dan and Jim hosted several weeks of signwriting classes getting ideas for words, chatting about projects, sharing stories, connecting communities and connecting with people. It was important to us that people felt involved in the project and that they got something out of it, that they had a say and felt involved.
More recently ‘non-permission’ or ‘unsolicited’ works have hit the headlines. Marc Quinn produced a beautiful sculpture of a Black Lives Matter protestor that was placed on the (newly) vacated plinth in Bristol. It was a great gesture and was prompted by the striking image of Jen Reid who had stood upon the plinth after the statute of Edward Colston had been pulled down and removed by protestors.
“In terms of getting Quinn’s sculpture on to the plinth, the project took on a Mission Impossible feel. NDAs were signed, late-night rendezvous arranged. Quinn has not received permission to put the sculpture up, but he is also not breaking any laws. His team transported the artwork from the workshop on a truck with a built-in crane to lift it up on to the plinth. The bottom of the sculpture is designed to sit securely without drilling, glueing or damage to the plinth. In many ways, proceeding without permission makes this a special sort of art anarchism, entering the realm of activism.”
Quote from The Guardian. Read the article here.
The piece had been there just a few hours when the order came from the council to have it removed. The piece had a mixed reception — it hit the headlines the very morning of its erection, but along with the plaudits for its iconic stance, was also the issue around the lack of community consultation and that the piece had been produced and placed in secret. It didn’t matter that it was a great sculpture, most of the issue was the lack of consideration; that is shouldn’t be just one person’s idea, and of course — that it didn’t have permission:
Marvin Rees, the Mayor of Bristol said: “This is not about taking down a statue of Jen, who is a very impressive woman.
This is about taking down a statue of a London-based artist who came and put it up without permission.
If you’re going to do something, you need to do it with awareness and a full knowledge of the context in which you’re doing it,” Rees said.
Quote from The Guardian. Read the article here.
In the same week, Banksy had been filmed painting rats on an underground train carriage — the video spread on social media and then hit the mainstream news but the main issue this time was that the ‘artwork’ had been removed by cleaners. There was an outcry from fans — didn’t they know what they were cleaning off? It was an ironic contrast.
“Transport for London confirmed on Tuesday evening that the work was removed “some days ago” due to strict anti-graffiti policy, but that it would welcome Banksy to recreate his message “in a suitable location”.
Quote from The Guardian. Read the article here.
“…in a suitable location” = a place where permission would be granted by those in authority. Of course we all know: Banksy doesn’t quite work like that.
How can we advocate and champion the value of arts and culture and embed it with community?
While a mix of the works we have commissioned have both had permission to go on walls, and some have not, one thing has been common; they have been produced to brighten up and make good. This has often involved local businesses (those who own the buildings or Business Improvement Districts) and communities, and often interested people who have passed by… but a lot of our commissions have been an idea by the artist.
While these works have been beautiful, striking and unique can we honestly say that they have felt owned by the local community?
A few of the works have: a 20ft wooden geo fox was very affectionately taken to heart by people in the Southside District of Birmingham and our Bostin sign was tagged a few months ago but has since been cleaned up (thank you to whoever did that). However we’ve lost many works (by some renowned illustrators) that didn’t last and weren’t loved by the building owners or the community (I’m thinking of the only Fafi in the Midlands painted on the wall of Snobs nightclub).
We know that arts and culture can make a difference in people’s lives. We just need to look throughout this year to see how many people turned to creativity during the lockdown. Parents used art to engage children, people took to painting (even Bob Ross had a reemergence in the Summer of 2020) and thousands of people painted their windows and shared creations to thank carers.
So how can we create the conditions for creativity to thrive and be meaningful?
In September we attended a lunchtime virtual talk: Art and Design in the Public Realm: essential or extravagance? Organised by ING media.
“As our cities slowly come back to life, what role could art and design play in reanimating our public spaces and enticing people back out onto the streets? How can we work together to commission art and design that engages and celebrates local communities, rather than impose on them?”
Speakers for the talk were artist Camille Walala, Hadrian Garrard Director of Create London, Richard Upton Chief Development Officer U+I, Georgina Bolton the Public Art Officer at Bristol City Council (Chaired by Leanne Tritton, Founder and Managing Director, ING Media).
The talk had come soon after Camille Walala’s ‘Walala Parade’ in Leyton had been unveiled; “To bring something joyful to the street.” The artist’s first community-funded large-scale piece (150m sq) of work had taken over 24 months of planning, consultation and fundraising.
“I knew what I wanted to do in terms of design. Something quite bold and playful but I gave them some options of different colour palettes because some of my work is quite bright and I wasn’t sure if everyone would like that style all over the street.”
The mural had offered ‘a sense of ownership to their area’ said Walala of the piece. Although the team still had to get permission from the council, luckily London’s Major, Sadiq Khan, had contributed to the project and had seen the value of brightening up the street.
Walala’s piece was ‘requested by the community’ they’d approach her because they liked her distinctive style so knew what they’d be getting (she’d mentioned there were a few options she’d presented and a few tweaks were needed ‘some people didn’t want Black and White paint around their windows’ for instance).
Camille Walala’s commission certainly feels more like the general approach to commissions that we have — seeing a space that requires some love and attention and attempting to do something about it.
Walala’s Parade has become an attraction with people visiting to take photos. It offers instant feedback, comments and reactions with locals taking pictures of the views from their own flats opposite and has, by all accounts, had a positive community response. Of course, a splash of colour could only bring joy and certainly a more positive outlook than the grey facade that it replaced.
One of the subjects that came up in the talk was around time:
When do you get the time to consult, to speak to communities, to embed artists within those communities so that they can work on ideas that are meaningful to the people that live there? How can you create identity and generate joint ownership of works and projects so that that communities feel like they have had input?
Working on the High Street (although socially distanced) at least feels like we are embedding ourselves; we are talking to people (face-to-face, via our Virtual High Street and on social media platforms), we are present, we know more and more everyday about where we are and the people that live there, but there is still a way to go.
‘The aim of the Sundial is to act as a heuristic or design tool for how we might set out, intentionally and skilfully, to rebuild the imaginative capacity of people, organisations or nations’.
One of the sections in the Sundial includes ‘Permission’:
Space — The mental and emotional space that expands our capacity to imagine.
Space is foundational to imagination. Busy and stressful lives riddled with fear and anxiety inhibit our potential for imagining, so space is about how we can slow down, open up and connect with others and the natural world to rekindle this capacity. It’s also about how we feel welcome and safe to participate when we gather together and give ourselves permission when we’re scared of getting things ‘wrong’. Space fluctuates day by day. We can have good days and bad days. Moments where we’re more imaginative and moments where we struggle. Space is like the soil of imagination. The more we cultivate the soil, the better the imagination grows.
From Rob Hopkins.
Our work in the lab is to help cultivate that soil, making it rich so that we can nurture the curiosity of people around us to have more ‘good days’ to imagine our futures and build a creative High Street together.
We’re excited to step into 2021 with our High Street plans. Introducing more creatives (or Time Rebels as we call them) to help us connect with communities, to spark more curiosity and to engage more.
None of this is or will be easy or simple. There are plenty of hurdles to jump. Eye Candy was all about works on walls by illustrators and building a community of creatives by offering commissions, while Paint Dudley is more about engagement and co-creating with local communities and artists. We want to reimagine the High Street and take people on the journey with us but we want to make sure it is meaningful and not about ‘art washing’.
If we can turn our high street into an outdoor art gallery (which would be amazing to do) then that gallery should be filled with the stories and work of and by the community, so they feel that ownership and can be proud of their input — no matter how significant.
We need to feel empowered to activate space and not feel like we are doing something wrong. If for whatever reason, a building owner is happy to leave their building in a bad way then no one should be challenged if they are doing something about it. We shouldn’t need permission, should we?