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What Would it Take?

Location: Birmingham, UK

Artist: Katherine Clarke, muf

Architects: Juliet Bidgood, Liza Fior, muf


What Would It Take? was a Millennium Commission funded research project undertaken by muf under the auspices of the ScarmanTrust ‘Can Do’ Initiative which seeks to empower people in order that they can act as agents for change in their immediate environment. muf is a collaborative practice of art and architecture working in the public realm, committed to a genuine process of consultation and negotiation with the people who use a particular space. Their way of working gives space to attend to and value the imagination, skills and wishes of local people who live or work in an area. Through this process, members of the practice are able to research existing situations and bring clarity to the realisation of ideas, using their creative skills.

Working with the principles of the ‘Can Do’ Initiative, muf collaborated with three individuals living in the suburban fringes of Birmingham in order to research how the artist and the architect can work with grass roots social entrepreneurs. Digital technology, photography, video and sound were used togive expression and visible form to the visions of local people, showing possible ways in which neighbourhoods and local resources could be developed in the future. ‘How to’ templates, in the form of graphic and visual descriptions, were made to reveal how these projects could be achieved, to inform other initiatives and to offer an alternative model to existing Local Authority service provision. muf subsequently used the same approach to develop and fully realise a similar ‘Can Do’ Initiative project for the new Walsall Art Gallery.

The Beginning

The collaboration between muf and the Scarman Trust began at a gathering of active community agencies drawn together to contribute to the Local Zone of the Millennium Dome. muf already had the idea of spending the fee for their contribution to the Local Zone on work within local communities, and showing the evidence of this grassroots work in the Dome. The Scarman Trust had launched the ‘Can Do’ Initiative in Birmingham in 1998, and television advertisements had invited viewers to tell the Trust how they would like to make a difference in their local community, and the Trust would then find ways to help those callers fulfil their potential contribution. muf saw a convergence between the approach of the Scarman Trust and muf’s own collaborative working practice, and saw the opportunity to work for the first time directly with clients who were the users of public spaces, instead of working at arms’ length through a local authority or other agency. A partnership was developed between the two bodies. From the summaries of telephone conversations the Trust had had with potential local entrepreneurs, muf picked out three contrasting proposals which excited them.

Each of the projects described below, (one in detail, the others in outline), were undertaken by a different member of the practice. The first and most important step was to define a detailed ‘brief’ with the client through discussion and skilled probing. muf noted that in each case the client knew what he or she wanted before muf became involved. The role for muf would be to identify how its professional skills could best be used to unearth the expertise of the client and the way they could achieve their objectives. Regular critical review meetings within the muf practice ensured rigour and the cross fertilisation of ideas and approach between its members that is its hallmark.

The Restless Youth Club, Shard End

Daniel Rogen, an unemployed 21 year old, had called the ScarmanTrust wanting to improve facilities for young people in his area to help them to keep out of potential trouble. They were not using the conventional community meeting places and were hanging about at various places on the streets.

He said: “There always seems to be some problems that never get sorted out, like when kids are bored and doing something dangerous or against the law. So I tried to figure out someway to keep them occupied and do imaginary layouts, skate board haven or a garden. Welcome to Utopia, then more people would get involved and we could do something positive. ”

Architect, Juliet Bidgood worked with Daniel to develop his project. She started by giving him a disposable camera to photograph the different places where young people were meeting. Juliet and Daniel subsequently visited the places together to talk about their particular attractions and characteristics, and a documentary photographer also recorded the places as an outsider. These places which were being occupied unofficially by young peoplewere marked on a map. This process unearthed the restless way in which the meeting places of young people change throughout the day and over time, as the groups themselves change.

Juliet Bidgood then made contact with the official providers of youth and community facilities and visited their premises, to find out what prevents their use by young people. This revealed tension between the needs of young and older people using the same space, and that ‘non joiners’ have nowhere to go outside established clubs. These official meeting places were added to the map. Further research with a group of sixth formers from the local school showed that they wanted places where their parents would allow them to go and where they could stay out late. Using this accumulated information, Juliet created a new vision in which the same resources and buildings were deployed in different ways to provide what the young people wanted. A drawing was made to show the potential of connecting the various spaces as an open network of shifting activities. By changing the opening times of existing buildings and providing sports training opportunities and a set of mobile sound and recording equipment to facilitate different uses, a series of sequential rather than either/or places could be created.

Although the initiator of the project, Daniel Rogen, found a job and left the project at this point, the map remains as a diagram of intent and has been used as a starting point by a group of 15 year olds from the local school. Supported by youth worker Carol Morgan, and with continuing involvement from Juliet Bidgood, the group is applying the principles developed in the research project to continue exploring the local map of desires and possible changes. Using a newly acquired computer and digital camera, they started to set up a web site in 1999 but suffered a set back when the computer’s disk was wiped and the original material was lost. Now the group is collecting the material again through personal visits and interviews, and is creating an interactive CD which will be available at libraries. The project has helped spread information about the locality and what it offers within a school where many of the pupils do not come from the neighbourhood immediately surrounding it.

Law, Learning and Leisure

Law, Learning and Leisure is an organisation that brings together people of different talent, skills and ambition whose friendship and commitment form a framework to achieve a larger shared vision. The organisation is evolving as a networkof interconnected income generating activities provided by members of the local community, in order to serve that community’s unmet needs. Those within the organisation have a clear understanding about its nature and what it is doing, but its unfamiliar structure has made other bodies resist entering into partnership with it.

The artist, Katherine Clarke, placed her skills in visualisation and sound and video work at the service of Law, Learning and Leisure to reveal their working process – both what they were doing and how they were building an organisation to support this work. A plan drawing of the Law, Leisure and Learning building was animated by the recorded voices of those who brought the organisation into being and was overlaid with information explaining the relationship between revenue, training and employment opportunities within its activities. This work established the legitimacy of Law, Leisure and Learning with other people and suggested alternative viable ways of working.

Modular Playstrip, Bromford

Elaine Bill, a parent of young children, living in Bromford, contacted the Scarman Trust with a dream of creating a safe playground for the children, which would be visible from flats and homes in the area, and where she and other mothers could meet. In 1998 the Leisure Services budget was cut by £4m. Playgrounds cost £70,000 and are considered discretionary provision. Although Elaine had a great deal of support and interest from other local families, her approaches to the City Council had not produced a positive response.

The architect, Liza Fior, worked with Elaine Bill to establish and visualise the concept for building a playground in incremental strips as funding was secured by Elaine. This allowed the project to exist as a strategy in advance of building it which could meet the Council’s inability to commit substantial sums of money at one time. The modular playstrip is a diagram of intent where one year begins with the scent of roses, somewhere to sit and the first piece of play equipment.

The images produced by Liza Fior were taken to meetings with Council officers to show in visual terms the idea for the playstrip and how it could be achieved step by step. Elaine Bill managed to get considerable support from the local vicar, Health Visitor, the Parks Manager for the Council and the local Police all of whom saw the idea as practical and needed in the area. She also secured £2,000 from the City Council to match a similar grant from the Scarman Trust, and £4,500 from the local airport from a fund to benefit residential areas affected by the airport’s flight path. Despite public meetings demonstrating local support for the idea, the Council was unwilling to go ahead with the playstrip which needed £10,500 to fence the area before the incremental scheme of purchasing seats and equipment could begin.

© Copyright Joanna Morland 2000