Artists Make Places

What does it mean to make a place? In a five-part series, we asked artists and curators Toby P Lloyd, Joanne Coates, Michaela Wetherell, Will Hughes and Kitty McKay to respond to a ‘cultural placemaking’ brief to see what would happen were they given control of the agenda. 

To become and remain a place – as distinct from a mere space – must be the result of a continual accretion, subject to variables and actors seen and unseen, human and non-human, physical and emotional, and as involuntary as it might seem purposeful, the sum of a set of parts. We’re all making places, all of the time.

In terms of human settlement, places don’t shift that quickly. They rest on a tacit agreement that while the product of a process of continual becoming, a place is a place, and that, for the time being at least, it remains only that place. For now, Gateshead is only Gateshead – even if contained within that designation are all the other previous places it once was, and all the identities that might be ascribed to it by individuals – the same way that the exchange-value of a £10 note is £10. In other words, it isn’t, but for our purposes, for now, we may as well agree that it is.

If this is to some extent true, then on the face of it, it seems illogical to suppose that a place can be made, in the sense that a pot or a bicycle or a wall can be made. Detroit became Motor City because of the proliferation of its automotive industry: activity which was distributed, not orchestrated, and unfolded over time. But, presumably, if we can convince enough people to agree with a new definition (Glasgow’s Miles Better), or to add another definition to those which already exist, we can at least start to influence the place that has been made.

These appellations might be useful to address social or physical problems, forget or celebrate the history of a place, raise standards of living, change the use of a space or affect real estate and land value (the 2012 Olympics as gentrification programme). Glasgow in the 1980s felt that it needed to change. The immediate solution wasn’t to effect wholesale physical interventions but to influence the way citizens and visitors felt about it as a place: winning hearts and minds first would pave the way for the physical investment which needed to follow it.

For this reason, since it is itself an abstraction, incorporeal yet predicated on people, culture has long been a useful starting point. The concept of ‘placemaking’ – the practice of working, usually in urban environments, to actively shape a sense of place – has, after gaining momentum from the 1960s onwards, become popular in recent years as a key policy of arts funders and local government, not so much based around new buildings or physical public realm improvements as ‘soft’ cultural interventions.

If it’s a truism that art works as a force for social change – and often, public programmes and interventions in the public realm can and have had significant, far-reaching and long-lasting effects – we might ask how consistently this is applied in practice. Who decides what is and isn’t useful to a place? We don’t all have the same agency, and not all places accept all of us, so who decides who’s in and who’s out, and how? How do we resist grassroots networks becoming bricks and mortar when they need to remain fleet-of-foot — and how do we enable them to erect buildings when that’s what’s needed?

For Artists Make Places, we’ve asked five artists and curators based across the North East to respond to a fantasy ‘cultural placemaking’ brief: what would they do with £5m of public money which asks them to improve the ‘cultural economy’ of the place where they live?

As it is in reality, our brief is a contract of sorts. Cities expect artists to make them interesting places and help them to determine themselves. Artists expect cities to provide them with somewhere where they can be artists — which isn’t always that easy given the economic basis of being an artist. But how would artists themselves respond if they were the architects of these schemes?

Over the next five weeks, contributors Toby P Lloyd, Joanne Coates, Michaela Wetherell, Will Hughes and Kitty McKay each respond to our brief. Their proposals are as different from one another as they are surprising, reflecting the specificities of their own environments, drawing on their own experiences, rethinking and unthinking the brief itself. All are rooted in the North East, and each is realisable. Join us over the next five weeks to hear from each in turn. ♣︎

Brief

Dear Applicant,

Congratulations! You have been shortlisted to receive £5m of public money which must be spent on developing the ‘cultural economy’ and improving the lives of both residents and art practitioners where you live. The funding may be spent however you wish, but must take into consideration:

Career / practice development: how will practitioners* benefit from this?

Public benefit: how will the wider public benefit?

Place and space: How can you enable or encourage the visibility of your project? This might be via the creation of a footprint in a physical place, or via distributed spaces or networks, virtual or physical; or some combination of the two.

What’s the legacy? Or, what happens when the money runs out?

… and anything else you feel is important. Will your project build physical structures or enable virtual networks for artists, or somewhere in between? How will it help put your area on the map? Will it tackle other, non-art related issues?

In order to win the money you must convince a panel comprising:

  • An artist based locally
  • An artist based somewhere else in / outside the country
  • A council representative
  • The curator of a visual arts institution
  • A politician

Good luck!

Main image: Spencer Tunick in Gateshead/Newcastle, July 2005 (photo: Mark Pinder)