A lot of the sort of work my peers and I make is arbitrarily measured by capitalist ideas of success - the number of people who engage / the cheaper it is per head the better it supposedly is. I don’t measure my work against these versions of success - I measure it against failure, discourse (agro), debate, usefulness, direct address and legacy.
The pressure for work to succeed, to be easy, palatable, popular and what arts workers call “engaging” means there’s a lot of parades that get made - that's a lot of people watching a few floats - all being considered ‘participants’ - a lot of people watching things go by on a forgotten high street - a lot of shit.
I’m not wildy interested in creating neat things for people to wave flags at because in this example I’m more interested in why the high street they are stood on is forgotten, I’m more interested in those watching the parade and the stuff they face on a day to day basis.
Another reason I don’t make these neat packages that happen one day of the year is because my work is long form. I make commitments to geographic locations for long periods of time. In St. Helens I’ve been working for 4 years and have committed to another 5, in Peterborough for 2 years with a commitment of another 2. 2 years in Southend and a further commitment of another 3. I have also just started a global project about adoption to span 10 years and recently kick started a 3 year programme of work with Ireland and the Irish diaspora.
Why? Well you can’t create fuck all if you are dipping in for 2 weeks and out again. Making your nice neat thing, leaving as soon as its made and then expecting communities to then pick up where you’ve left is naff - that school of thought is way too ‘Big Society’, way too Tory for my liking. Change, support, encouragement, care and action takes time - artists working in this realm need to commit and funders and commissioners need to support that commitment.
This year I started my working relationship with the brilliant city of Leeds, commissioned by Compass Festival. My pitch to them was that I didn’t want to spend their money on a big bums on seats, lets-carry-stuff-down-the-road-with-a-band-on-a-truck type thing. In fact I wanted to zone in on one street and simply try to get the neighbours talking to each other.
After 30 years living on an estate, moving into a house was weird - firstly, stairs! Then seeing that folk in houses don’t tend to talk the the other people living in houses next to them! I grew up on estates where you played out all day, you walked into peoples homes. I’ve had my tea cooked for me by neighbours (as an adult), know the gossip about various different people on different floors and found out my nickname was Jazzy Shoes.
As a response I’ve created this new work - Would Like to Meet or WLTM - one of my dare projects. I dare a location to nominate itself, to come forward to step into the unknown. Dare projects in the past have got people to sit in hot tubs telling each other why they love their nearest and dearest or got folk stepping through a door and into the unknown in pursuit of answers.
WLTM asked the city of Leeds to nominate the loneliest street in the city. We rolled out a press campaign across TV, radio, newspapers and blogs. Thousands watched the trailers and engaged with the social media campaign. The initial response was as expected - a bit defensive. Leeds isn’t unfriendly many people reminded me - I know that myself (I love Leeds) but I asked the question again and people came forward and understood this wasn’t about friendliness but about urban social isolation. Something not unique to Leeds but my opening statement with the city!
We created a short list of places and set about visiting them. As someone whose used to working with working class communities I realised when visiting the areas that MP’s call ‘lower socioeconomic’ or what I recognise as being similar to where I grew up, I realised that this project wasn’t going to land right in working class areas. Folk in these areas have a different set of circumstances to attend with - they don’t need a fat queen like me knocking on the door trying to convince them to know their neighbours ...and in any case most working class communities I’ve lived, grown up and worked in already have that spirit because that's often part of survival.
Many commissioners would push me to work with the working class communities because it brings them kudos with the funders, it feels edgy and I’m usually commissioned because the arts thinks I speak a special working class language so I know why I’m often in the room. Compass Festival ain’t like other commissioners - they trust artists to make the right decisions. I really rate them for that. I told them I needed to work in a place that was a bit more well off for this one.
However, I’m not abandoning my working class siblings. Compass and I are already discussing how we might work with these streets, dreaming up ways we could support their survival and visibility. My commitment to Leeds is not just for the two weeks of Compass Festival.
The idea of WLTM is simple - interview folk, find out what they like, create a bunch of estate agent style signs that will sit outside their homes with a few key facts about the sort of people they’d like to meet ….then get the street talking to each other.
The street I chose to work with from the short list is a small one - St. Peter Mount, Bramley. Lined with 28 houses, most of which are occupied by one family. The road is littered with traffic cones - there's not enough parking places so people mark their space and territory! There's also a bit of suspicion against the houses that are being split into flats. I instantly knew this was the street to work with.
Out of 28 houses we’ve managed to get 12 to sign up so far - 1 person is moving home during the project and 5 people have asked to not be involved. Of course I’m unbelievably interested in the 5 people who don’t want anything to do with me! I wonder if they’ll change their mind? I wonder what about talking to me for 5 minutes is so scary? I wonder if actually folk don’t want to talk to each other?
Something we need to understand in the arts is not everyone is down with being involved ...and why should they? Why should folk believe in the arts as a route through the current political landscape when all that's currently being demonstrated to them is Harry fucking Potter on Ice? I think the question we should be asking is how does the sector prove to them that we’re worth the subsidy we receive and the energy we ask from them.
Now, the art capitalists amongst you might be thinking 12 house out of 28 isn’t a lot but for a project about social isolation I think it speaks volumes. I think it highlights the problem is way more complicated than I once thought.
I won’t be measuring this projects success by how many folk get involved but by the defensive conversations people had back in May about Leeds being a brilliant city, I’ll look towards those who didn’t get involved and why that was. I’ll be looking at what happens once the signs come down and how folk on St. Peter’s Mount decide to interact with each other. I’ll be watching, listening and finding ways to respond as I continue to work with Leeds well into 2023.
Interested in what I’m up to with St. Peters Mount? Come see the street for yourself between 16th - 24th November - the installation of isolation. More info at http://compassliveart.org.uk/festival