This week, with the support of an extraordinary team of helpers and volunteers I installed an exhibition in the Bearpit in Bristol. For those of you that don't know Bristol, the Bearpit is a large concrete underpass which connects the retail centre of the city to Stokes Croft (site of the anti-tesco riots of April 2011 (ref 1)).
For me the Bearpit was the only appropriate space for my first major public showing of pictures from 'The Writing on the Wall'. In the ten years since I relocated to Bristol, Stokes Croft has staked a claim as the beating cultural heart of the city. An area of rowdy music venues, prolific artist studios, cafes and charity shops, Stokes Croft has been at the centre of debates about gentrification, street-art, commercialisation and public ownership of public space for the last decade. In 2008 a community interest company called co-exist (2) took over a huge abandoned office-block in Stokes Croft and opened Hamilton House in an attempt to regenerate the local area in a sustainable way that met the needs of the local community. Hamilton House boasts a popular and successful bar/cafe/music venue, an art gallery, performance space and bike workshop as well as hiring out studio space to hundreds of artists and makers.
The principals of grass-roots regeneration, community ownership and cultural expression are typified everywhere throughout Stokes Croft (note the collectively owned and run Cafe Kino, the constantly squatted, evicted and re-squatted free shop, and the various art gallery collectives that have opened and closed on sites such as the motorcycle showroom and the emporium). These issues are probably best represented by the People's Republic of Stokes Croft (known as PRSC (3)), a social enterprise which started in February 2009 with the mission:
"PRSC will seek to promote and bring to fruition the notion of Stokes Croft as a Cultural Quarter, as a destination.
PRSC will seek to promote creativity and activity in the local environment, thereby generating prosperity, both financial and spiritual.
PRSC will work in all ways to enhance the reputation of Stokes Croft as a globally renowned Centre for Excellence in the Arts, both in its own actions and by encouraging the action of others.
PRSC believes that the strength of the local Community resides in its creativity, tolerance and respect for each other."
In Stokes Croft it can be difficult to ignore the debates around art versus business; the right and wrong uses of property; gentrification or regeneration; localism or globalism; and the old problems of money and power, the neighbourhood is seeped in these issues. The Magpie - one of Bristol's most iconic and long-standing squats - is based on the corner of Stokes Croft and Ashley Road where it hosts regular social activities and manages to make the area even more colourful.
The whole Stokes Croft neighbourhood is dominated by a huge derelict building known as Westmoreland House, a skeletal structure filling the skyline, who's boarded windows and doors have become canvases for the Stokes Croft outdoor street-art gallery.
The Bearpit is the site where the crazy, creative energy of Stokes Croft collides with Broadmead - Bristol's retail sector - and as a result it has a character and story all it's own. This site has been the meeting place for various roadways into Bristol, and has provided an open common space since the early days of the city. It was the site of Bristol's most long standing annual party 'St James' Fair' which ran from the 13th Century to 1838. The Mshed website (4) relates the following:
"It attracted traders and shows from all across the UK and overseas, which included, according to the exhibitors list, wild beasts, waxworks, flying coaches, peep shows, a camera obscura, air bathing, a revolving panorama, dwarves, giants, and even 'a learned pig'. Traders sold goods ranging from earthenware pots to silk ribbons, and there were food and drink stalls, theatres, and fair ground rides. Bush houses, unlicensed pubs identified by an evergreen garland or bush, were also extremely popular until they were outlawed in 1815. It's little wonder that the citizens of Bristol were seduced by the colour and spectacle of the fair.
However, detractors believed it also attracted pirates, brought the plague to Bristol in the 17th century, and was a hive of corruption and criminality. The Bristol Mirror reported on Saturday 6th April 1823 that 'There is scarcely an exotic in nature that may not be seen there', but also that 'the light fingered tribe are as usual, very active'... Deemed a bad influence on Bristol's populace, and with trade declining, the fair ended for good in 1838."
Today the debates about what should and shouldn't be allowed in the Bearpit continue. In 2010 a meeting was held between local residents and representatives of the police, the council and PRSC to address the reputation of the underpass as being a dark and dangerous place full of street crime and drug addiction. This resulted in the formation of a Community Interest Company called the Bearpit Improvement Group (5) and in the reclassification of the Bearpit as a 'Community Action Zone'.
Since then the BIG CIC has brought market stalls, street activities and artworks into the Bearpit and created the Bearpit outdoor gallery. Redevelopment work has also just started which will see the space restructured with a pedestrian/cyclists walkway that will allow you to cross the roundabout without using the tunnels (6). The developments and plans for the Bearpit have also been shaped by debates about the value and importance of public space and by the clash of business interests, political ideals and community needs. The Bearpit can be seen (both symbolically and geographically) to sit on the front line between the city's economic and it's cultural needs.
As part of the Bristol Festival of Photography (7), which runs throughout May, I am showing my work alongside the legendary pinhole photographer Justin Quinnell (8). In one tunnel I present my project ' The Writing on the Wall' and in another you can see examples of a portrait technique of Justin's own invention which he has christened 'awfulogrammes'.
As a pinhole photographer working in Bristol, Justin spends a lot of his time running workshops where he introduces his students to the principal of creating cameras from random household objects (9). Over the years, the darkness of British Winters have combined with the slow nature of pinhole photography to result in extremely long exposure times during his classes, with students having to wait about 30 seconds for each picture to be created in the camera. While 30 seconds may not sound like much in comparison to an eight hour working day for example, or a three day hike through the Andes, in photography, like motor racing, it is an age. So Justin came up with a super-fast portrait technique involving holding powerful flash guns and a pinhole camera incredibly close to the subject's face. As the instructions on his website explain:
The Writing on the Wall
This is the first major showing of my ongoing project The Writing on the Wall, a photographic exploration of some of Europe's squats and abandoned buildings. It starts with the text:
"There are 4.1 million homeless people and 11 million empty houses in Europe" (11).
I don't think it is possible to have an honest debate about squatting and the consequences of the commodification of housing without first acknowledging these figures. The wall of statistics is decorated with black and white images of empty buildings and angry slogans that I've witnessed in my wanderings around Europe. If you follow these figures down the wall it will lead you to the tunnel. Inside the tunnel is a collection of 34 colour images mainly showing the interior of squats but also featuring scenes from empty churches, hospitals, schools and houses.
Almost all the images are presented without labels. I debated this in my head for some time - the first reaction people give to my pictures tends to be the question "where is that?" and it felt mean not providing an answer. On the other hand I generally feel that question misses the point. In my travels I have seen the problems of empty buildings, rising house prices and homelessness all over Europe. Stories that I first came across in France have been repeated to me in Spain, Germany, Ireland and the UK.
The division of these problems into state sized chunks seems to deliberately ignore their scale. In the tunnel there are eight pictures that are labelled, they show the interiors of squats in Amsterdam, Dublin, Nantes, Barcelona, London, Madrid and Bristol. My decision to label these was to try to remind viewers that these issues are both local and international and need to be considered as such.
These eight images had been vandalised less than 48 hours of the whole show going up. When I return to Bristol on Tuesday I will have to see what can be done. While we were installing the show lots of people stopped to warn us that the pictures would be damaged, graffitied or stolen straight away. The most common refrain was "don't leave those here, put them in a gallery somewhere where they will be looked after". These words were being said by passers by who had never heard of me or my work and would never have seen the pictures if they were hanging on the walls of a gallery.
Deciding where to put these pictures once I have made them is one of the biggest headaches of this whole project. The intention of the work is to reveal the human realities and the magical charm of squat life to people who have never been inside a squat or spoken to a squatter. The images need to reach an audience that has so far been presented with a biased, scaremongering view of squatters as lazy, drug-addicted thieves by media outlets that are following their own political agendas. My target audience is unlikely to seek out an exhibition claiming to reveal a hidden world of squatted and abandoned buildings, so the exhibition must seek them out. The trade off for this is that the work is left, naked and vulnerable in the streets for anyone to tamper with. The writing on the wall is inevitable.
Two of those eight pictures (including the one featured on the bfop poster) came from a squat in Dublin. Following a huge construction boom, Ireland suffered extreme economic collapse after the 2008 crash. The country found itself bankrupt, littered with empty buildings and abandoned half-built housing estates (12) and haemorrhaging young people in one of the most extreme manifestations of the Irish diaspora since the potato famine. Despite a sense of being betrayed and abandoned by a short-sighted state, some young Irish people have stayed in the country, determined to help construct a fairer and stronger Ireland. One manifestation of this is the inspirational 'We're Not Leaving' project (13) which helps young people (students, precarious workers and the young unemployed) to unite and campaign for a fairer system. In Dublin a radical newspaper called 'Rabble' has been running since 2012. Staffed by volunteers and funded on a shoestring Rabble (14) expresses the voice of an angry generation that has seen the cracks in the system and refuses to join in with the process of papering them over and carrying on as before. Inevitably another reaction to the crisis has been a resurgence of squatting as young people look at their empty bank accounts, the huge waiting list for social housing, the rising levels of street homelessness and the thousands of buildings standing empty and decide that two and two should probably equal four for now.
The squat featured in these pictures faced an eviction attempt on Wednesday (the first day of the exhibition). Three men armed with hammers and crowbars and claiming to be acting on behalf of the owners came to the house in the early hours and tried to force the squatters out. A call for help went out and about fifty people came out onto the streets to support the squatters and to help them resist eviction. They succeeded, the men went away an the squat still stands for now. You can read a wonderful account of the day (15) and watch the anti-eviction song (16).
(12) see my photos of Irish ghost estates here: http://www.furnessphotography.com/4/post/2014/04/on-the-road-irelands-ghost-estates.html