The idea of art and the community does not always go hand in hand; for many art is an elitist, intellectual pursuit that doesn’t sit comfortably on the sofa alongside the community, who are probably watching Gogglebox and eating KFC.
Take a look at the popularity of local, community based art projects, like the recent Longbridge Light Festival, curated by artists Chris Poolman and Elizabeth Rowe, however, and a different narrative starts to emerge. Art and creativity have always been part of our community interaction; cave paintings, wandering minstrels: as a species, we’ve long been interested in presenting our experiences to the wider world, whether literally or in more metaphorical terms. Only money and a consumerist approach to art has made it the preserve of the elite; the rich and seemingly idiotic who are happy to invest large sums of money for something that only has a high value because the right people have decided it does.
The rest of us are making do with real art: the art that gets made because it needs to be. That’s the real value of art; the imperative of it. And you can’t buy that, suckers.
As well as the Longbridge Light Festival, Poolman Rowe have also been involved with the Balsall Heath Biennale, another community based art project that was produced by and for the local community. As a collaborative duo, they have an interest in art that isn’t just for the sort of people that go to galleries on a Sunday afternoon.
“We were fed up of more gallery based stuff,” Rowe says. “We were talking about how we could do projects in public spaces that make contemporary art that was engaging larger numbers of just ordinary people in a way that they were included in it, but wasn’t dumbing everything down or, not pandering, but giving people what they already know and recognise, but still making critical pieces of work that an art audience would have some respect for, but it was trying to do both of these things at once. And I suppose that’s kind of what makes it really interesting all the time, because it’s quite a difficult thing to do.”
“I think there’s something quite unpredictable as well about working with general public or in a particular community,” adds Poolman. “It can be quite kind of messy and it’s not particularly safe, I don’t mean safe as in dangerous but that it’s – a gallery can be quite a safe environment and the unpredictability can be I suppose quite an exciting aspect of it.”
“Something we’re really interested in are more vernacular forms of creativity, say things that people do in their own time that maybe they think of as hobbies, they might not even think of it as being as formal as that, but it might be the way that they do their front garden or sort of the displays they put in their window sills or these kind of manifestations of their creativity, these are the things we’re really intrigued by,” Rowe says. “We try with the few projects that we’ve done to make opportunities for people to kind of show those in an art context and I suppose what we do is perhaps create a framework where that can happen more, so…I think you know when we’re talking about, oh most people don’t get art, contemporary art, the general public or the community, it becomes a bit too homogenous in terms of how you’re thinking about people in a way doesn’t it, and you know, you don’t want to make people feel stupid or like it’s something that they can’t get involved in but at the same time you need to do something that is going to offer something that is a little bit different or that is challenging or that does get people to think about things, you know, because that’s kind of what it’s all about really.”
Poolman: “I think when we did the Cat Gallery, [as part of the Balsall Heath Biennale they had a gallery in their front window where cats mingled with the art works] people responded to that really well, you could take it on whatever level but I suppose that always quite interested me cause it was showing that you could do something a bit different with your window and if you wanted to do a cat gallery that was ok, you know. There’s lots of things you can do with your front window isn’t there? If you wanna have a cat gallery then, it shows that it’s alright to try and do something different.”
Windows are a recurring element in Poolman Rowe’s work.
“We did the kind of window display competition at the Light Festival,” Poolman explains, “and that obviously has this very community feel to it and there were a lot of community groups doing these displays. I suppose the idea from our side was that you might get people doing these displays that covered up all of the branding and the shops so that a community groups would take over the window of the Premier Inn, for example, and you wouldn’t necessarily see it as the Premier Inn anymore, you would just this kind of big messy creative display. With some of the windows it did work like that.”
With the corporate encroaching on our lives and into our spaces more and more, art can be a way of making an in-road into that and reclaiming a bit of it for the community. With the Longbridge Light Festival, that seems to be an association it’s impossible to escape: the creep of big business into the lives of the people who live and work within a community. Longbridge was once home to the biggest car factory in the world, and many of the people from and around the area were employed there. But by the end of the nineties that era was over: a series of ill-thought out mergers with other British automotive companies in the 60s and 70s and the decline in sales of British-made cars meant that Rover, a major local manufacturer and employer, was no longer viable. There was no government bail out (they weren’t bankers after all) and thousands of people were left jobless.
The collapse of Rover has meant that everything in Longbridge has changed, the sense of place has been destroyed and replaced by something new, and in a further ode to consumer culture, which seems ironic as it was this that got them into the trouble in the first place, the town centre will eventually transform into a retail park. Soon to be home to the second biggest Marks & Spencer in the country (a selling point, allegedly), the people of Longbridge will be spending their leisure time in a park that is really just a factory for buying stuff.
The history and future of Longbridge casts such a shadow on the site of the Light Festival that is was impossible for Poolman Rowe to ignore it when they began curating the festival. The theme they chose, Back to the Future, reflected that but also aimed to engage the local community.
Poolman explains why they chose this particular theme, “whenever we kept going back to the site to have a look at it, you can’t help but be struck by this enormous building that just, always felt as if it’d just landed there, you know. This thing that just kind of appeared, that kind of removed everything else, well not everything but what was Longbridge had just gone. This building had just been plonked there and it just had a really unusual feel to it. This kind of town centre appearing where there wasn’t any town centre before. And it just had a certain sort of strangeness.”
“I suppose the other kind of big thing that we wanted to pick up on with the back to the future theme, which sort of has a relationship to science fiction, is the idea of aliens and I suppose following on from that sort of alienation, and like Chris was talking about sort of the town centre, particularly the college building, sort of just sort of appearing or landing in the middle of this community.” Rowe adds. “I suppose there’s this idea of regeneration isn’t there, there are winners and losers from it and like some people will be really for it and I know that a lot of people in Longbridge think it’s a great thing but then it also means that you’re leaving something behind and perhaps certain people feel left out from that. I’m certainly aware of certain tensions within Longbridge and how people might feel about that. “
But in contrast to the alienation that the theme suggests, it was also an attempt to bring the community in and try and engage them in the project. “I think we kind of imagined it was quite a fun theme but also was something that could play around with these tensions that there were there.” Poolman says.
Rowe agrees. “That’s a really important point, we needed something everyone could get and hopefully that people would want to get involved in. We thought that science fiction should be quite popular, but also that you could have these other sorts of bits of more critical thought about it. The writing about it would be more appealing to different audiences.”
“I think it’s something that we’re probably quite interested in exploring, whether you can do something that works for I suppose your normal general public, the person in the community, and something that might work for the art world as well and whether you can layer.” Poolman says.
“But also that when you’re designing things or when you’re thinking about what that community is, you know,” adds Rowe. “I’m always thinking about myself sort of growing up in an area that has things in common with Longbridge and how actually you’re looking for something where some people are kind of doing something that’s a little bit interesting, so that it’s kind of like not exactly a route out but it’s a sign, it’s like a signal to you that other lifeforms do exist. To like, take the science fiction metaphor probably a little bit too far.”
For Poolman and Rowe, getting the community involved in the art they make is evidently an important part of their projects. Making the project fit the space and the people is vital to their success.
“One of the things we’ve spoken about is our interest in vernacular creativity but it goes a bit further than that because it’s what is art’s job, isn’t it, what is it’s role?” Rowe asks. “It seems to me that there’s quite a big part missing or that people have moved away from now where there isn’t much space left in our day to day lives necessarily for pursuing particularly group creative acts, and there is something really empowering for people who live near each other to like be working on something that happens once a year, together. It can bring people together and lift them up in a sort of semi-religious experience basically.
“Churches, aren’t in my mind, just about God,” she explains, “but they’re these sorts of places that people have been working on for hundreds and thousands of years and their community and you know people would be doing stone carvings, wood carvings, all different sorts of things…so it’s more than just about sort of worship, it’s about making stuff.”
Making stuff and working on creative projects as a community is something the pair are keen to promote and help facilitate.
“What we’d like to try and do over this year is get some sort of art school space set up in Balsall Heath,” explains Poolman. “So it would be like an art school but it would also kind of I suppose be a project space where things might happen, but what we’d really like to do is rent a terraced house, for example, on a street in Balsall Heath so that there’s this space on that road where for one or two days a week there would always be access to go into to do art, or some other cultural activity, so it’d be this kind of resource or this spot where you could always go on.”
“I suppose,” Rowe adds, “the difference – it’s called an art school because that’s the easiest way of describing it, but it wouldn’t necessarily be for people who, you know, want to train up to be an artist, it would be more just for people who wanted to do some sort of hands on activity. And that’s not to say if you want to be an artist you can’t come along, but also that the stuff we were doing there would be feeding into something bi-annual, two events a year that would be much bigger sort of public events, like an inner city fete or something.”
“What might be interesting I suppose if you could do this for say five years, what might the impact be on like a group of kids who live locally and came to it, you know every Saturday over five years and you tried to find a way of measuring that to see what the impact that space might have within that particular community,” Poolman says.
“Yeah, that’s what we’re really excited about at the minute,” Rowe adds. “So it would almost be like a piece of research in a sense, so yeah, say the art school ran for five years and you tracked a seven year old ’til they were 13, then maybe went to see them when they were 23, you know, so you could sort of find out in more of an in-depth way as to what it set in motion for them, if anything. But I believe it would’ve, just in terms of their health and well being and their kind of horizons more generally, you know about how they saw themselves in the world and what the possibilities are.”
Poolman Rowe are intent of taking art into the community; or more accurately of exposing the art that’s already happening within communities, the imperative art. Whatever the elite art world might think, that’s priceless.