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Further up in the air

Location: Liverpool, UK.

Up in the Air Artists: Leo Fitzmaurice, Neville Gabie (artist/curators), Grennan & Sperandio, Dirk Konigsfeld, Kelly Large and Becky Shaw, Philip Reilly, George Shaw, Chloe Steele'

Further Up in the Air Artists: Leo Fitzmaurice, Neville Gabie (artist/curators), Jordon Baseman, Vittorio Bergamaschi, Catherine Bertola, Marcus Coates, Bill Drummond, Anna Fox, Stefan Gec, Lothar Gotz, Gary Perkins, David Mabb, Paul Rooney, Will Self, Julian Stallabrass, Greg Streak, Tom Woolford, Elizabeth Wright.


Up in the Air, 2000 - 2001, and Further Up in the Air, 2001-2004, were two ambitious programmes of artists' residencies in Sheil Park, Liverpool. They were jointly initiated and managed by artists Neville Gabie and Leo Fitzmaurice. The residencies coincided with the redevelopment of the whole Sheil Park site including the demolition of existing 1960s tower blocks and the creation of high quality new homes. The projects developed with the support of the residents and support in kind in terms of accommodation and use of the building from the Liverpool Housing Action Trust (LHAT). Implicit in this partnership was a mutual respect and trust in the process and project by the residents, LHAT, organisers and contributing artists.  

Ten artists took part in Up in the Air and eighteen artists in Further Up in the Air. Over the five year period, an archive of work was built up through the two projects and left in situ until the tower blocks were demolished. Kenley Close was vacated in 2000 and demolished in 2001 and Linosa Close was vacated at the end of 2004 and demolished at the beginning of 2005.

Up in the Air


The first residency programme, Up in the Air, was initiated and curated by artists Neville Gabie, Leo Fitzmaurice and Kelly Large. The project was subsequently managed by these three artists and Becky Shaw. The project consisted of month long artist residencies based in Kenley Close, one of the tower blocks on the Sheil Park estate. All ten artists involved in the project were in residence at the same time, from late August to early September 2000.

The intention of the project was to invite a range of artists to live and work in the partly empty tower blocks due for demolition as part of a regeneration scheme led by Liverpool Housing Action Trust (LHAT). There were no criteria placed on the artists as to how they should respond or what the outcome might be, nor was there a requirement to produce an artwork. The project was seen as an opportunity to bring a group of creative people together in an environment traditionally marginalised by the arts and for the artists to spend time and engage with residents.


The initial seeds of Up in the Air grew out of visual artist Neville Gabie's eight month residency at Tate Gallery, Liverpool 1999-2000. Neville Gabie had already spent two months working in Kenley Close during his Tate residency as part of an ongoing project called 'An A-Z of Empty Spaces'. Neville Gabie was interested in the changes taking place in Liverpool during his time at the Tate, especially in terms of the debates around housing stock, and realised in order to gain greater understanding of the issues and develop new work he needed to find a way to spend more time in the city. His interest was driven by his own concerns as an artist and by his experience of working in different urban contexts.

Following an initial conversation with one of the Tate's curators, Camilla Jackson, who subsequently wrote an essay for the Up in the Air catalogue, Gabie met up with artists Leo Fitzmaurice and Kelly Large in the summer of 1999 to discuss ideas and what form a project might take. Together they developed the ideas for a programme of residencies and approached LHAT who came on board with the proposed project for Sheil Park. LHAT had already planned a temporary arts programme to accompany the consultation on the Sheil Park rehousing programme before they were approached by the artists with their proposals. It was agreed that whoever was awarded funding first would go ahead with a project. In the event it was the artist team who, having applied for Arts Council Year of the Artist (YOTA) funding for Up in the Air in early 1999, were awarded a substantial grant later that year. At £26,000, this was one of the largest YOTA grants in the north-west. Seed funding was also provided by LHAT.

LHAT was set up by the Government in February 1993 to improve or redevelop the high-rise blocks across Liverpool within an estimated 12 years. In early 2000 it adopted an Arts Policy with three strands of cultural activity: Community Arts ; Arts Education and Involvement; and Public Art. The project fell within its Community Development Programme, placing emphasis on the process and the legacy rather than 'outcomes and outputs'.

Sheil Park Residents

The Sheil Park tower blocks were built in the 1960s and most of their residents had lived in them since they were commissioned. The Shiel Park Residents Association was set up in the 1970s and formally constituted as an organisation with a core group of twelve people and a membership of around 300 residents. Josie Crawford, the association's group representative during Up in the Air and Further, and her colleagues, were introduced to Leo, Neville, Becky Shaw and Kelly Large by Paul Kelly of LHAT. The artists explained that they wanted to create an art project with the involvement of the residents. LHAT and the artist team realised that the success of the project would be contingent on involving people and gaining insight about who the residents were, what their lives were like and what they wanted for the future.

One of the reasons Up in the Air worked so well, according to Neville Gabie, is because this established residents' association structure was in place. The residents association already had a history of meeting and organising events and activities including regular 'drop in' sessions to a craft class and other arts activities. This trend continued during Up in the Air and Further.

Selection Process

There was no written artist's brief and artists 'did not need to develop a specific proposal nor have worked in a similar environment before'. The curators felt this was crucial in allowing flexibility and creating an open environment in which the artists could work, so encouraging a broad range of work and different ways of working. The curators were given full autonomy by LHAT as host organisation to structure the programme and select artists as they wished.

A long list was created from artists researched but not personally known to the curators, and artists responding to advertisements in a-n magazine and Art Monthly. Around 120 submissions were received and short listed down by the curators to about 30 artists whose slides were presented to the residents. The residents were asked to vote in order of preference. However when heated debates inevitably resulted, the system was successfully changed to voting by secret ballot. The selection panel consisted of Neville Gabie, Leo Fitzmaurice, Paul Kelly and the twelve 'core' resident association representatives.

Resident Involvement

The curators were unsure how the residents would respond. In the event, although there were some who chose not to participate, there were no objectors. Approximately 150 residents were actively involved, the majority older residents who had lived in Sheil Park since the blocks were built in the 1960s. The resident caretakers and off-site caretakers were also involved and were interviewed by some of the artists about their views on developing the site and their experience of working in high-rise buildings.

As part of the project preparation residents were taken by the curators on 'go and see' trips to galleries, museums and other sites to see contemporary work before selection began. Visits included the Lowry in Manchester, Oriel Mostyn in Llandudno and the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham with the curators and also to Weisbaden in Germany to see a Fluxus exhibition with Paul Kelly. As a result the residents were receptive to a broad range of contemporary work and had clear opinions about what they saw.

The residents played a key role in the process: helping select the artists, showing artists and other visitors around; organising parties, openings and other events. Involvement went beyond the normal expectations and aspirations of many public art projects in terms of 'extra-curricular' activities. For example, meals were prepared for artists by residents and a group of residents and artists went out dancing together.

Neville Gabie notes in the Up in the Air catalogue that some of the key questions for the curators when planning the project were

  •  'What is it like to be a resident at Sheil Park ?'
  •   'What do the impending changes of living on the twenty second floor to being back at ground floor level mean?'
  •   'What is the residents' response to up to thirty five years of personal memories disappearing and becoming 'a space in the sky?'
  •  'Who makes up the Sheil Park community of residents?'
  •  'How should the artists respond as outsiders to the site?'
  •  'Was the site really as dysfunctional as opinion indicates?'

The experience was felt by all involved to be affirmative and the mainly elderly residents enjoyed meeting the mainly younger artists and having someone with whom to discuss the history of the site and their lives there. The project provided residents with a platform to become actively involved in shaping their community.

The Commissions

The ten participating artists were Leo Fitzmaurice, Neville Gabie, Grennan & Sperandio, Dirk Konigsfeld, Kelly Large and Becky Shaw, Philip Reilly, George Shaw and Chloe Steele. Work included installation, photography, painting and video, for example:

Grennan & Sperandio made one of their typical comic strip portraits based on the enigmatic Mr Williams who lived in the flat but of whom no trace remained other than two large photos, one of a lush palm tree scene looking out to sea and an autumn forest scene engulfing one whole wall. Neville Gabie visited each flat in Kenley Close collecting objects discarded by residents, one from each vacated flat, and displayed photographs of the objects, which acted as testimonials of the flats' occupancy, in wallets on the walls of one of the flats. Chloe Steele used two adjoining rooms in her flat to make a wall drawing and a sculpture comprising a series of white card models of the new development of houses which were to replace the block and which she could see from her view out of the window.

There was, perhaps inevitably, a mixed reception from residents to work made for Up in the Air (as indeed there was to Further) and, as Josie Crawford commented, although the residents "liked the artists" they did not "necessarily like all their work".

The management of Up in the Air was kept as simple as possible. Contributing artists were contracted by the artist curators and hosted by LHAT. All work produced belonged to the artists at the end of their residency period, although a number of artists gave work to residents for display in the community centre which was to become part of the new housing estate when it was finished in 2005. An exhibition of work produced during the residencies was held at Kirby Gallery, Liverpool.

Further Up in the Air


Although conceived as a one off project, the success of Up in the Air led to plans by the curators and LHAT for a further phase of residencies. Further Up In The Air was a longer-term project which evolved from the experience of the earlier project and involved eighteen artists and writers working in three phases of residencies in Linosa Close, by then the last tower block on site.

LHAT funded 50% of the costs of Further Up in the Air and funding applications were submitted to the Arts Council and other agencies for the balance. This project expanded the vision of Up in the Air with national and internationally recognised artists and writers responding to the Sheil Park site. The curators' intention was to invite artists from a broad range of disciplines to discover what a video artist, painter, sculptor, photographer or writer would attempt to capture in what they found during their stay. Using six empty flats as accommodation and a further twenty [over the whole programme] as studios, eighteen artists lived and worked in Linosa Close, Shiel Park, for periods of about six weeks each over a three year period. The first group of artists were in residence in Linosa Close during spring 2002, the second group during late summer/autumn 2002 and a third group during 2003.

At the conclusion of each residency period there was an 'open weekend' for the public. In the autumn, prior to its de-commissioning, Linosa Close was again open to the public with work from all the artists and writers involved made visible. At the end of the project about 20 plus flats contained artwork ranging from complete installations to those which operated primarily as a studio space.

The curators, Leo Fitzmaurice and Neville Gabie described how "Certain things seemed key: the empty flats, referred to as 'voids' which were anything but, filled as they were with domestic items which were once the fabric of homes; the sprawling views, punctuated by other tower blocks across the city; the sense of the weather, seen approaching from miles and heard howling around every stairwell; and not least the residents themselves, who helped to develop the unique character of the project."

(Further Up in the Air website)

With Further up in the Air LHAT became more actively involved and assumed responsibility for the overall project administration and project accounts. LHAT issued to the artists contracts which had been drafted by the curators. The artist curators retained a small 'petty cash' account while LHAT took overall responsibility for the budgets. The decision to manage the project in this way was partly made because of the benefits to the project that LHAT could bring as a charitable trust, for example in terms of funding criteria. The alternative would have necessitated the artist curators forming a constituted organisation of their own which they did not want to do.


The curators set up a permanent office space in 2001 in Linosa Close and operated under the umbrella name of Furtherafield with the following statement of purpose:

'Furtherafield is an artist led organisation that seeks to develop, mutually beneficial, projects between artists and other agencies. It is an organisation that has grown out of the needs of artists providing them with a context and platform for their work. It will continue to develop organically in relation to the artists interests and those of partner organisations.'

The close proximity of the office meant residents could pop in regularly and easily which encouraged good communication and involvement, essential to the success of the project.

Because of the size of the Further project, the decision was taken to invite Liverpool based postgraduate students to take on the role of project management, supervised by their tutor in order to free-up time for the artist curators. However this element of the project did not work out as envisaged. The curators felt that the smooth running of the project necessitated a 'hands on' approach, for example showing people around and developing on-site relationships with the tenants, rather than the 'office-based'/'arms length' approach which was actually adopted. The project management team were unable to offer this close management, and the decision was therefore taken for Gabie and Fitzmaurice to resume the project management role, for an agreed additional fee.

Flexible Working Process

The format of the Further Up in the Air residencies was structured to allow time and space in which the artists and Sheil Park residents could meaningfully exchange and interact. A policy of flexibility and trust was developed. Some artists stayed for a calendar month, others came and went according to commitments, and others worked there over a total period of around eighteen months. The process was flexible to suit individual needs and practice.

'Residents could approach the artists and act in different ways and indeed the residents worked alongside and consulted with the artists throughout. The curators were careful to select artists who were sensitive to this way of working. Leo Fitzmaurice describes the artists' processes and works as having "quiet, poetic meaning [where the artists are] teasing out meaning from the situation rather than imposing meaning on it" (a-n magazine, Leo Fitzmaurice quoted in a interview with Jane Watt). Neville Gabie felt that the success of the project owed much to the fact that it was an independent artist-led project which gave the artists the freedom to establish relationships with different groups without the constraints of belonging to an organisation.

The curators were clear that the project was 'not to be a community arts project' and their ambition was to involve 'serious artists' who would enjoy working in a new context. Although all the artists had the same starting point they came to a different set of working conclusions. For example, George Shaw continued to paint scenes of Coventry , his familiar subject material, while in residence and did not start to paint Liverpool scenes until well after the project finished. Paul Rooney, Anna Fox and Marcus Coates worked most closely with the residents, other artists were slightly more removed.

The Commissions

18 artists were commissioned over a 3 year period: Jordon Baseman, Vittorio Bergamaschi, Catherine Bertola, Marcus Coates, Bill Drummond, Leo Fitzmaurice, Anna Fox, Neville Gabie, Stefan Gec, Lothar Gotz, Gary Perkins, David Mabb, Paul Rooney, Will Self, Julian Stallabrass, Greg Streak, Tom Woolford, Elizabeth Wright. The work covered a wide range of practice.

Catherine Bertola reworked an embossed ivy pattern wallpaper by cutting round the outlines of the embossed leaves and partially pulling them away. Leo Fitzmaurice assembled cardboard packages and junk mail with text and logos removed. Anna Fox produced a social documentary work based on photographic 'portraits' of flowers displayed in resident's flats to celebrate Mother's Day. These portraits displayed as wallpaper in an empty flat, operating partly as a 'memorial' piece. Neville Gabie 'soft stripped' the interior of a flat and assembled a stacked cube comprising floorboards and fittings. Stefan Gec constructed an inflated hot air sphere made from one of the room's stripped wall paper and Lothar Gotz's installation comprised a single bed, table, armchair and binoculars. Paul Rooney created a triptych of videos with a soundtrack reflecting the previous owner's memories of her flat. Will Self who, from the vantage point of the top floor flat no 161, wrote a short story, '161', which was displayed on the walls of the flat in the form of typed pages, pencilled notes and photographs of the view below. Tom Woolford made a map based on the views from his windows and information brought to him by remaining residents.

As with the earlier project, work produced during Further belonged to the artists at the end of their residency period although a number of artists did give work to residents, for example George Shaw donated his painting of the view from the Linosa Close block to the Newsham Park houses to the residents for display in the new community centre on the new estate. A permanent display is in the community centre, recording the history and memory of the site as well as artworks, including the residents' own.

© Frances Lord, July 2005