Sunday, 15 March 2015

Uncertain Places

Jeppe Hein's Appearing Rooms in Preston's Market Square, 2007

In one of curator Elaine Speight's pieces for new book Subplots to a City: Ten Years of In Certain Places, she relates 'Uncertain Places' among a list of mishearings of the programme of artists' work in Preston she has worked on since 2005.

From the outside Preston may verge on the unremarkable. It lacks the visitor destination glamour of its other, larger, North West rivals Manchester and Liverpool. Like Bristol it was damaged by bombing during the Second World War, and so despite being a historic city Preston also has a strange clash of architectural eras represented in its city centre, from the grand flourish of the Harris Museum and Art Gallery to the concrete 60s bus station designed by BDP which was recently saved from demolition and awarded listed building status (to the delight of many architects). But many people live, work, pass through and spend time in Preston. It has a university; a population of 130,000; it's incredibly multicultural; and it’s an administrative centre with courts dealing with major cases from across the north west.

I feel a very personal connection to the history of In Certain Places in Preston as it has coincided with my own history working on public realm projects. In her piece for Subplots to a City, artist Becky Shaw reminisces about the impact of Villa Victoria, an artwork at Liverpool Biennial in 2002 which involved building a one-room hotel around the city's statue of Queen Victoria. Somewhere I have a copy of the Liverpool Echo featuring a picture of me on page 3 sat inside Villa Victoria on the day it launched. I was volunteering for the Biennial as their press and marketing assistant and the photographer wanted someone in the picture.

I first visited Preston around 2004 while still in my first job related to arts in the public realm, working on a large town centre retail scheme in a small West Cumbrian town. I was still in my early 20s and relatively inexperienced. Public art was still basking in the warm fuzzy afterglow of the Angel of the North (1998), and the Regional Development Agencies had been investing heavily in permanent public art commissioning in the regions. A lot has changed in the last ten years – government; the abolition of RDAs; the credit crunch; how artists work in the public realm. The Fourth Plinth was still in its infancy, Liverpool’s Biennial was only just getting under way, and Situations in Bristol began in 2002.

Preston didn’t ever get a B of the Bang, or a Superlambbanana. Instead Preston got In Certain Places and their durational, liminal programme of artists treading lightly upon its spaces. In so many ways their approach has endured considerably better than much permanent public art commissioning of the same era, perhaps precisely because of this lack of permanent traces.

In Certain Places has links with the University of Central Lancashire (UcLan) and the Harris Museum and Art Gallery (run by Preston City Council) but has never apparently been constrained by either the politics or the strategic direction of either organisation. In my view this independence has enabled it to remain free-ranging and free-thinking.

The new book, Subplots to a City reflects on In Certain Places activity really since the beginning in 2003, through a series of essays and photographs. There are contributions from many of the old faces who have been involved over the years, including James Green (now Director of Newlyn Art Gallery & The Exchange in Cornwall) who developed the original idea for In Certain Places with Charles Quick; Preston City Council Urban Designer Nigel Roberts, many of the artists who have been commissioned by In Certain Places over the years, audience members, participants, and some notable writers, curators and thinkers, including Owen Hatherley and Paul O’Neill.

Can You See Me Now?, Blast Theory, Preston, 2007

In Certain Places set themselves the brief of ‘examining how artists can contribute to the development of a city’. They have brought large scale ambitious projects to Preston that have made a considerable visual impact – Jeppe Hein’s water fountains work, Appearing Rooms; Harris Flights; Shezad Dawood’s feature film ‘Piercing Brightness’. They have commissioned established artists such as John Newling (The Preston Market Mystery project), interactive gaming based work by Blast Theory, sound-based work, local artists, work in empty shops, work rooted deeply in communities (The Family) and even a tour of Preston's weeds. They have also (and continue to) commission and encourage thinking and talking about the city in a way that had not been done before through a series of lectures, symposia and discussions.

Harris Flights, Charles Quick and Research Design, Preston City Centre 2013

The benefit of hindsight makes the book an interesting recent history of the city of Preston, and how it has ebbed and flowed. The shadow of the once promised, but never delivered Tithebarn retail development by Grosvenor - who built Liverpool One - hangs over the history of In Certain Places as it formed part of the original justification for the programme. But reflecting on how this turned out, it is only really a part of the story of Preston, and I can't help feeling slightly relieved the Tithebarn's impact didn't ever come to pass. 

There are challenges for artists being funded by a development when they are interested in asking questions, rather than supplying the gloss of marketing and the grease of community engagement. There are some fascinating snippets of information about Preston in the book, including the fact that its now demolished town hall was designed by Sir Gilbert Scott, who also designed St Pancras Station. (Incidentally, googling this led me to a page that suggested that remnants of the masonry from this building can still be found by the river Ribble). It becomes apparent that Elaine and Charles have enjoyed sharing their knowledge and affection for Preston with visiting artists.

This book is for anyone interested in how artists have worked in a site specific context in recent years, and for anyone who wonders about what makes up a city.

You can buy a copy of Subplots to a City: Ten Years of In Certain Places for £15 from In Certain Places new website: