In 2003 I joined a small group tasked with re-establishing a public realm in Ancoats. We were working in the context of a uk national urban policy to regenerate inner city wastelands. In Ancoats we shared an optimism and confidence that we would be working on this place for the long haul; maybe 10 years, maybe more. For an artist, the opportunity to be engaged in the remaking of a place from the outset, and in a way that can be sustained over a decent amount of time, is a privilege and opens up a rare opportunity: the possibility to try and find out how an artist might meaningfully be involved in city scale regeneration.
It was only a few months into the project, I was just settling into the studio and getting my bearings, when I was rudely awoken one dawn by an almighty crash. As I looked bleary eyed out of the studio window onto Murrays Mill, I saw sewing tables, then machinery, then boxes that spilt their loads into a plume of buttons, needles, belts, labels, neck ties, school uniforms as they hurtled towards the ground. Next it was rolls of fabric, then the trolleys, then the doors, then the partition walls, and then I picked up my camera and got over there. In Manchester this is known as ditching; a team of men some characterised by their unemployability as unskilled labourers, were armed with crowbars and clubs and were stripping out the building floor by floor. A giant hole was knocked out down to the floor of each of the eight levels, and the contents of each mill floor was carted to that end, everything was then hurled out into the courtyard until the mill was stripped bare, then they moved to the next floor. I introduced myself to the foreman of this and the other sites where ditching was soon underway, and armed myself with my camera and grabbed a box of red patent leather belts. I went into battle, dawn to dusk saving what things I could as I moved along with my camera and note book, by tying a belt around things otherwise headed for the skip, trying, often in vain, to stay one floor ahead of the ditchers.
With a sudden jolt the regeneration process had shifted into action. Ancoats was at its tipping point, it was also turning itself inside out and stripping itself bare.
The artworks for the regeneration of Ancoats made during the first year were collectively titled ‘The Presence of Absence’. They centred around a series of photographs of the mills and interviews with former mill workers, owners and residents now dispersed around the city. By the time they were complete I felt that not only had I got under the skin of what Ancoats was about but also that the place had got under my skin.
The rescuing of ‘junk’ (or ‘treasure’ depending on your perspective) was an attempt to retain a few elements, mechanisms, totems, and it got madder in scale very quickly. In no time the studio was jam packed and I began to negotiate with the new owners and the ditchers to retain areas in the basements to store things. Then I began to ask for whole rooms to be left untouched, particularly those that had been walled or locked up.
Saving stuff was the beginning of something. Although I could see it was not an obvious part of Ancoats’ new trajectory, nevertheless in this activity there were clues as to what, as an artist, I might do here.
The Presence of Absence artwork had revealed some of what was latent in the area. What followed was a compulsion to engage and intervene directly in the changing fabric; to address what was being ditched. It was an intuitive act, but one that marked out a new phase for the project, one in which I would move on from witnessing and reflecting, to personally intervening in the fabric of the area as it changed. The time in the studio was spent trying to fathom what shape any intervention could meaningfully take.
Living and working amongst these behemoth cotton mills my attention was drawn to the unexpected vestiges of life in different forms carrying on in the mills in spite of the area being all but shut down. It made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end with each new find. These disparate and strange mechanisms, walled up spaces, phenomena that lingered on in unexpected sites around Ancoats had a collective identity somehow. I realised Ancoats was still living and breathing in the deepest recesses, in little caches. My challenge it seemed was to establish, against the clock, what to make of these experiences and sites, and if possible establish how some of these charged spaces and mechanisms could be nurtured. How they could survive the cleansing phase of the regeneration? What would I be retaining? Why? What place would a walled up space or mechanism have in the emerging identity of Ancoats as the reconstruction of the area took place?
As I began to grapple with these questions in the studio I entered another phase of the project. In addition to the close working relationship with the design team for the public realm, I embarked on a series of creative collaborations and dialogues to develop ideas for the project. These were with artist/architect Dan Wrightson, Professor of Artificial Intelligence Noel Sharkey and artists Mary Wardle, David Ralston and Pickle Ellison. Each brought a unique creative perspective to the project, shaping the Peeps as they unfolded.
When the roads and pavements in Ancoats began to be torn up, not only were cobbled streets revealed but a walled up tunnel was discovered that once joined two mills. An overhead walkway and a walled up public toilet embedded in a historic bridge were also on our radar as their demolition was imminent. It was a natural progression from retaining artifacts and rooms to want to hold on to these fascinating finds, but this level of hoarding was a complex and difficult undertaking. If not a little mad.
Who would own them after they were retained? What would be done with them? Why? By whom? For what purpose? At what cost? These questions needed to be answered almost immediately or these spaces would soon be lost.
I threw up the bat signal at the studio and convened a summit of project collaborators, and although none of us could quite explain or articulate why we would pursue such an unusual and unprecedented course we were in agreement that it was somehow the right thing to do, to make something of these finds. These isolated walled up spaces had miraculously survived the degeneration and ditching. They were the spaces of the ordinary everyday activities of a working industrial city and suburb; places to eat, move, pee, produce, and they were unexpectedly highly charged and somehow extraordinary by consequence of what had become of them. As people in the area began to hear about these found spaces, their arrival in people’s consciousness seemed to add a new layer to Ancoats. Knowlege of these spaces changed immediately people’s sense of what the area had been and what it could become. Their impact on the psyche of Ancoats owed as much to the stories and myths that began unfolding around each find, as did the experience of witnessing the spaces personally. Additionally we began to recognise that these places seemed connected to one another somehow, they were a series, a set. Each was a discrete site with its own character and story, but collectively they created a network of connections to one another and became more than the sum of their parts. So we agreed on a simple plan, and the Peeps project was born. If these walled up spaces could be experienced from the public realm, ie as you walk through the streets, then we should work together to make something of them.
How might an artist constructively be involved in shaping a city; in particular in making a post industrial landscape? While working on the regeneration of Ancoats, I was also working on cultural masterplan programmes in the uk for Sunderland, Scotswood in Newcastle and Stoke on Trent. In these city scale regeneration projects large architectural masterplans were being developed to provide a framework for the physical and economic regeneration. The cultural masterplan was developed as another layer to this framework that addressed how this physical regeneration would also effect a cultural transformation and lead to a new identity for the area. These cultural masterplans choreographed the individual and disparate physical projects of a regeneration, be they a street, a public square, a bus station, a shopping centre or individual apartments. Retuned, a number of projects resonate with one another and develop stronger connections. This allows for these projects to become more than the sum of their parts; combined they have the possibility of constructing new identities and effecting a cultural transformation.
The regeneration in Ancoats was very different to these other city scale projects where a cultural masterplan was commissioned. In Ancoats I started out as the artist making an artwork, not a strategic planner. This project is fundamentally different from masterplanning as it is characterized by thinking as doing; by working out the planning and direction of a project, by getting stuck into making things in parallel to pursuing the abstract working processes of planning.
Working on The Peeps and Cutting Room has lead me to a deeper appreciation of reciprocity; the notion that not only do we construct our built environments, but they also shape us and our relationships with one another. In developing these artworks I have the sense that there is the possibility of making something that moves people deeply when the artwork and the place being made are the same thing.
The real potential for involving an artist in the making or remaking of a city arises when the artist’s role shifts from observing to intervening; when the artwork shifts from being reflective and passive, to becoming part of the built fabric as it emerges. This way the work develops the capacity to be active and transformative in sychronicity with the fabric of the city.
The Cutting Room and The Peeps are the means of presencing a series of immured charged spaces. As you walk through Ancoats, the presence of absence is not limited to being touched for a moment by what was once there. Peering into these shifting yet seemingly uninhabited spaces, the sense of presence is as strongly resonant of what might be coming, as to what has been.