Feeling Unsettled by Social Making, in a good way

The Social Making symposium was devised by Take a Part in partnership with Plymouth University and hosted by Radiant Space.


There were several overarching themes that evolved as the Social Making symposium rolled out over two days. Those relating to unsettling, succession and time caught my attention. Arnstein’s Ladder was also discussed, there’s an article in response to that on the a-n website, here.

The range of speakers was comprehensive, offering glimpses of the many ways that socially engaged practices are now being delivered internationally. The very nature of successful socially engaged practice is that it becomes deeply, and permanently, embedded in people and places. Take a Part has been doing that in Plymouth since 2009.

Dr. Sarah Bennet (Interim Head of School at Plymouth University) would no doubt refer to Take a Part as an ‘upstart organisation’ as opposed to a startup – they began as a small group with a big idea. The term upstart set the tone, flagging up the need for socially engaged practice to challenge existing new-business models, because not everything is about economy. As the symposium developed and more speakers presented, there appeared to be a growing tension between the notion of unsettling and that of providing sanctuary. How might one create a safe place for people who may have, themselves, arrived in a very unsettled condition?

Dr. Kelichi Nnoaham, Director of Public Health, shared his story of how he grew up listening to hip-hop and rap music, and on entering Cambridge University he had to learn about classical music. That was evidently very unsettling for him and very likely for the fellow students that heard his favourite music for the first time. He referred to this as being ‘a tough war’ which informed his passion for community empowerment and drive for inclusivity.

Michael Bridgewater, engineer and Take a Part Board member, used the term “community interferer”. It’s a good description, unsettling and agitating must have the capacity to constructively re-settle after the event, it’s not just about providing economic validation. And it is messy.

Succession was a big subject at the symposium – how can socially engaged practice withdraw from communities and leave a sustainable legacy that can continue what the artist-as-catalyst began? My article for a-n refers to the Arnstein’s Ladder model that seeks to create total accession through a series of processes, always with citizen control as the goal. I have my reservations whether or not the model works well within socially engaged art practice as it stands, but it could be adapted.

Other projects, such as Homebaked and Effevescent, described how they evolved over time. Time is imperative for succession to come to fruition. There were numerous crunchy little phrases, like “are public artworks empty symbols of civic pride”; “it’s peoples work, humble and messy” and “are indicators passive data, or the legacy of a sense of direction?” to mention a few.

There was a brilliant range of speakers present and it was a real coup to have Turner Prize winners Assemble there to end two days of fascinating discussion. By the end there was a real sense of these being exciting times for culture in Plymouth, both from the speakers and from the conversations in the gaps between. Whilst the audience were seated in the main hall to hear the presentations, there were plenty of networking opportunities, oiled by excellent hospitality by RumpusCosy.

Take A Part should have invited an estate agent to set up a stall – so many people were saying they want to live there. I don’t blame them, it’s a buzzing place to be.


I was able to attend the Symposium thanks to a bursary from VASWVisual Arts South West is a network creating opportunities for artists, organisations and professionals to develop their practice, share ideas, knowledge & resources, and cultivate relationships.




A woven time-warp-walk through Bristol with Circumstance

Going to experience the wonderful sonic orchestral participatory work Folded Path in Bristol, with Duncan Speakman, was always going to be a special experience. And it was, very much so.

Navigating through the streets led by Circumstance, setting off from the Watershed and wandering around a fairly tight area, meant every step felt familiar to me. A group of some 40 people, divided into groups of ten (maths may be wrong, apologies if that is the case) were provided with hand held beautiful sound boxes, loaded with GPS and a wide range of sounds – from voices to instruments, creaks to breathes. The group split and then reconnected at various points. Sounds of the city merged in my ears with the sound the group made. Some people bounced sounds off walls, another carried their child on their shoulders. We smiled, we listened and we shared these sounds as we moved briskly onwards.

Parallel to the event engagement, I became aware that a time-warp was happening in my brain and my body. I know this area so well, having been involved in so many art project in this city since around 2000 – first as an artist, then as a producer. For me, the present mingled with the past, opening up to the recorded and ambient sounds merged with my memory-sounds. I was in a group, and interacting, yet in my own world, reflecting, remembering places and people from my past.

Here are a few memory-moments when the art, places and people of my past momentarily stepped over the present and confronted me:

We met at the Watershed: I used to use their dark rooms, wet ones, before digital. I participated in experiments with a group of other artists interested in digital media. We tested the first mobile phones that had built-in video (circa 2000). Across the water was a big office block with rotating doors, Broad Quay House, which I filmed. It was a very sweet film, simple, grainy. I helped to teach Watershed staff how to do websites. That was when I was an artist. Later, in 2003 for the Dialogue Project, run by IAN (Independent Artists Network – I was a Director), the Watershed hosted two works for us. One was “Francesina” by Ana Medira and the other “Solo” by Gabriela Vaz Pinheiro – both from Oporto.

We departed from Millenium Square: Many years ago (maybe 2001?), Duncan and I had an interview to do a video and sound installation in the Wildlife Centre there – we didn’t get it but were excited to be shortlisted!

We crossed St Augustine’s Reach: where Lisa Scantlebury was commissioned by me (IAN), on behalf of the Architecture Centre, to make 4 new works for Architecture week in 4 cities – Bristol, Gloucester, Plymouth and Swindon. That was in 2006, we installed the Gloucester one the weekend I left my husband. Hard to separate art from life, place and time, isn’t it?

We ambled down towards Queens Square, passing a nightclub on Broad Street that closed down one new years eve (2004) and was left empty, frozen in the moment. I viewed that with Phil Collins as a possible location for Thinking of the Outside (2005), a Situations project on which I was project assistant to Claire Doherty. For the same show, we installed work by Silke Otto-Knapp in a listed building on the square – wrangles over painting walls dark green but it worked very well.

From Queens Square over the bridge towards Redcliffe – across the harbour from Station – a wonderful small gallery space curated and managed by artist Louise Short. Too many memories to list here, but believe me, they were all special. For Dialogue, Louise re-animated a redundant waterway signal –an engineering feat that resulted in pure poetry as startled seagulls rose up fast when their previously stable perch rose into action. Inside Station, Adam Dade presented “Stock” – a piece that invited visitors to make paper planes and fly them through the centre of the building, through a small window. A hole was hacked into the partition wall, the planes stacking up the other side.

Turned left, behind the Huller and Cheese warehouses. Huller was another Thinking of the Outside location – Kathleen Herbert’s fab video installation, multiple screens, all filmed from a car-carrier ship between Belgium and Bristol. We loved doing research for that – visiting the ships and the Seafarers Mission at Avonmouth. Finally the warehouses have met their imminent fate – luxury waterside apartments. Cristina Crossingham spent several years trying to secure the Cheese Warehouse as permanent artist studios, but sadly it didn’t happen. Which is a shame, because it would have been fantastic.

For the Dialogue launch we had a ferry trip enhanced by our commissioned performer – Jim McNeill. (We also had Felafael King to do the catering, still there on harbourside) . He acted as Chris Nicholson (Crest Nicholson parody, they were buying up the harbourside fast and many suspected Bristol may even be renamed accordingly). Wearing a cravat and a suit, he waxed lyrically about how he was making life for Bristolians better with his monopoly on the waterside spaces. That was in 2003 – maybe a survey should be done now to measure the dream?

The Bristol Ferry Company supported the Dialogue Project – as did Arnolfini, Watershed, City Council, UWE and RIO. Eve Dent appeared in strange places along the ferry journey, her arms dangling from rusty redundant ships, or crouching in small holes under bridges. Wonderful.

Walking along the harbour opposite the Spyglass Restaurant (fondly know as the barby boat) I remembered the project I ran there too. Quirky, some performances, an art market, a kitchen run by artist Dominic Thomas that became a social space, where visitors had to cook with him before eating the produce. People loved that – free food in exchange for labour.

Crossing the road to Castle Park and passing the old bank building – I stop to take a photo. As well as hearing the present sounds around me, I recall the frightening loud barking of police dogs in the vaults of that bank. We were visiting this abandoned building and being shown around, as a potential site for Thinking of the Outside, when Alsation dogs started barking and running at us. There was a police dog training exercise in progress. It was one of those moments. We froze. But all was well.

St. Peters, the ruined church on Castle Park has a secret herb garden behind it – worth a look, oregano, rosemary, chives and mint can be found there, for free. Just opposite there Redcliff Clay was used to inscribe text on the harbourside walls. The artist Marion Bock and the technical team applied the stencilled letters for “A masterpiece for sale” with full permission from the harbour master, who lent us a pontoon. Sadly the harbour police weren’t aware of that and an urgent call was received to go and stop any arrests made. That was ok too.

Walked towards St Nicks market, remembering how we installed a cinema for Joao Penalva’s work within 48 hours in a flagstone floored market hall. Original cinema seats bought from eBay, drapes, safety lights and carpet, and even an ice cream freezer, all achieved with overnighters.

Another (mostly) unknown thing is that on the upmost storey of St Nicks, inside the roof, are remarkable historical statues. The glass roof above them was bombed during the war and replaced with an ordinary roof – they are a hidden treasure.

Going back to the car near Prince Street Bridge, I took one last photo – the cranes outside M Shed (which in 2003 was the Industrial Museum). Two cranes were animated by German artist for “What’s up?” by German artist Natalie Deseke and had conversations. I remember how startled people were, when they walked underneath the cranes and they began to chat about their history in broad Bristolian dialects. Also on that bridge there used to be a florist (where the coffee cabin is now). The florist sold flowers wrapped in an artwork by Paul Rooney called “Blush” – carrying a beautiful text about a young girl (by then in her 80’s) having to give flowers to the queen and how that made her blush.

For the record, not all of the artists that were commissioned for the Dialogue Project have been name-checked because those that are were related to the journey for The Folded Path. It was certainly folded for me….

The full list is:

Adam Dade


Anna Oliver

Seamus Staunton

John Pym

Louise Short

Natalie Deseke

Marion Bock

Paul Rooney

Ana Medeira

Gabriela Vaz Pinheiro

Here not There

Even Dent

As I write this out, the morning after the Folded Path walk by Circumstance (a Mayfest event), I feel like I have been through…….

A time warp

A place warp

A sound warp

A people warp

A weave 

#visartsbristol open space meeting – good discussions, now for action (updated)

Yesterday I attended an open space event convened by Situations and Bristol Museums (and possibly others, excuse my ignorance here).

AMENDMENT: the partners that hosted the event were:

Alexis Butt, Acting Director, RWA; Claire Doherty, Director, Situations; Helen Legg, Director, Spike Island; Julie Finch, Director and Phil Walker, Public Programmes Manager, Bristol Museums, Galleries and Archives and Tom Trevor, Director, Arnolfini.

It was a good day and a while since I have engaged deeply with what is happening in Bristol, having moved to Glos seven years ago. It felt good and it was particularly interesting to witness a wind-change in the arts ecology in Bristol. It used to feel very territorial in Bristol, but now the key players, the artists and public bodies seem more united, sharing a vision of resilience for the arts in the city.

Historically, the Bristol art scene always seemed somewhat dominated by the major organisations, creating a hierarchy, often with artists at the base of the triangle. It was good to see so many artists there and all working together on a level playing field. Freelancers also hold their own now too, creating a rich and nourishing compost into which ideas can grow.

It was also very good to see such a high museum sector presence, though I didn’t meet anyone from libraries, sadly. Both are now part of ACE remit.

Collaborating with the museums would be ideal for Flow, with new projects being devised to tour works that are modular & adaptable, yet pay homage to each context they are taken to. And new commissions too – a constant celebration of existing works and a topping up with new, ever changing artworks.

Phil Walker led a group discussion about ‘future thinking’ for museums. I’d really like to work with him and his team to commission an artist to respond to this enquiry, which could then tour (alongside existing works) to other museums and gather their ideas and visions.

An issue that arose time and time again in conversations was the need for there to be people engaged to broker partnerships, oversee multiple partners to deliver cross-sector projects.

That is exactly what I do, what Flow is designed to do.

Talk to me.