Action Research: Re-establishing the narrative of 'Creative Placemaking' in Blackburn

Some say that Blackburn has been going through an “identity crisis”.

Some say that Blackburn is "divided, un-cultured and un-engaged."

Through my position as an emerging artist and student of the Fine Art course in Blackburn and a continuing engagement with the town and its creative and cultural activity, I have been immersed within a growing sub-community of practice.

This community in Blackburn brings diverse demographics of local people and various other communities and cultures together; challenging the pre-conceived notions of segregation, and low engagement in the arts, imposed on us by the media and Arts Council England.

This is achieved through a spectacular community of support and practice and the utilization of Blackburn’s empty buildings for exhibitions, installations, film screenings and performance.

Putting art NOT into elitist institutions, but into places that ALL the people of the town can relate to on a cultural level.

Blackburn has an abundance of under-utilized spaces. Spaces which artists have been bringing back to life through collaborative, meaningful projects, creating work which the town can relate and respond to, causing the manifestation of un-expected outcomes, discussions and ideas; attracting substantial revenue into Blackburn and organically re-generating the town, and uniting its people through art and culture.

Re-generation by Creative Placemaking.

So, what is Creative Placemaking?

Creative Placemaking is a field of practice which is used to enhance public spaces with artwork while improving community well-being and prosperity and drawing attention to working-class areas to distinguish them on a global scale.

Within this, strategies and practices are used to cultivate connections between people and place.

Practices such as:

· public art,

· co-design,

· community art,

· urban design

· and socially engaged art.

Some would say that creative placemaking is a field which is a prosperous re-generation strategy which culturally and economically enhances the lives of communities.

Other research suggests that Creative Placemaking can be an extremely flawed strategy….. which relies on the succession of a disadvantageous, triangular relation and common ground between the desires and intentions of the artist, the citizen participants and state or private investment.

As a strategy of urban re-generation. Creative Placemaking has become affiliated with social cleansing, and gentrification.

An agenda of rejuvenating lower-class communities, resulting in the dis-placement of working-class people.

And beyond all this, surly we must ask….

Do our places really need making or re-making?

Are they not already made?

Made up of already existing communities and cultures?

All being said, Creative Placemaking is tied into the circumstances, or perceived circumstances of our town here in Blackburn.

And to figure out what that means for us, means all the time building and re-building our understanding of our community of practice in relation to our people and places and communities and cultures with which we co-exist.

I’ve been on my own journey of building my understanding of this. Working on various socially engaged projects with various other artists and organizations.

I’m going to be discussing a project I was involved in as a co-producer called 'Take Up Space' and how this provoked my own research and delivery of a live artwork and intervention within the field of creative placemaking.

‘Take Up Space’ is an Arts Council England funded project in Blackburn which through strategies of creative placemaking, aims to develop a derelict green space into an open, multi-purpose, community led, sustainable, self-managed, cohesive space.

A community arts garden.

A community arts garden co-designed and community led, in a way which meets the desires of the people of Blackburn.

‘Take Up Space’ aims to instill a sense of ownership, responsibility and pride back into the community of Blackburn.

The direction of the project was led through:

· research trips,

· creative facilitation workshops,

· mind mapping and co-design.

· Open community workshops of prototyping concepts,

· design proposals,

· prototype garden making for children.

· Development and production of maquettes.

· Exhibition of maquettes.

· And facilitating public consultation and voting.

The generating of community ideas then re-imagined by co-producers of Take Up Space.

A community arts garden.

The re-generation of a neglected derelict space. A space with no sense of purpose or relevance. A space in need of creatives. Creatives who can fill it with culture.

But we can’t be spoon-fed culture.

And our spaces are already rich in culture.

Sometimes hidden in plain sight.

The communities of Blackburn needn’t be injected with a sense of ownership, responsibility and pride.

We are proud, we are responsible, and we do have ownership. Ownership of our cultural spaces.

The independent research I conducted throughout the Take Up Space project led to the development of a project of my own. A project which differs from ‘Take up Space’, which rather than intends to develop the space, re-visits the space in time and re-imagines.

An intervention, within the narrative of creative placemaking and development of a community arts garden.

Interrogating the relationship between the artist and the community within a “community-led narrative”.

And if, as artists we claim to engage communities, how many and who should that be to achieve the proposition put forth, and actually gather people’s desires?

And lets not invest our projects within the media narrative that our town is divided and un-cultured.

And do we need the implementation of creative placemaking to encourage communities to self-organize.

Blackburn has a rich history of self-organization and innovation.

The building and sharing of spaces for gathering and socializing is embedded in our histories. The relationship between our people and our places is impacted by the marks that our histories make upon our contemporary lives.

With an eye on how our spaces can be utilized for cultural and social use, now and in the future, I ask if first we must fully understand our spaces social and cultural happenings of the past.

My research into the cultural heritage of this space un-covered memories of a subterranean youth prog-rock nightclub in 1970’s and 80’s Blackburn. Memories which weave together to tell a story of a sub-community led space, an outlet and escape for young people of the time. A place called Peepers.

Peepers was and still is little known, however in the circles of those who went, the place was a local legend founded by three brothers known as the Three Peake’s.

The three brothers, Geoff, Gordon and Brian Peake, provided a space for local school teenagers to escape on a Friday night, bang heads to rock music, drink pop and burn joss sticks. The self-organized community of Peepers created a subcultural atmosphere of heavy sound, fluorescent psychedelic murals, UV lighting, smells of patchouli and incense, and an overcrowding of denim clad teenagers.

Over 40 years on this community still exists and still share their fond memories of Peepers over a private social media page.

It is through this online social space that I conducted my exploration of a physical space, not excavating material truths or artefactual evidence, but the un-picking and re-imagining of a collective memory.

An excavation of memory and imagination, re-imagined and collaboratively re-propositioned in a new space.

Supported by Prism Contemporary Art Gallery and Blakey Moor Townscape Heritage Project, I devised a live artwork in collaboration with people who used to go to peepers.

Over 40 years on, the live artwork brought back together over 80 participants.

Participants were familiarized with sensory elements and references of Peepers, including a playlist of prog rock music written in collaboration with Peepers veteran and DJ Jo Duxbury, participatory artwork presented on the night through a collaboration with Prism Artist Daniel Davidson, and rays of UV lighting breaking through clouds of incense.

This was a socially engaging live artwork with participatory, performative and ethnographic elements, relying foremost on the participation of its invited community to make it work.

Outcomes of this artwork have led to further research and collaboration, and the production of new and future work.

Work which adapts methods of socially engaged art in context to the current climate.

A situation which causes us to further reflect on how we build and share social and cultural spaces now and in the future.

The notion of memory became a really important aspect of this body of work. As more people began to hear about this project, artefacts began to emerge.

Newspaper clippings from the 1970s and concept designs for original Peepers murals.

Photographic references which confirmed visual concepts.

This mural inside Peepers was painted by a local artist in the early 1970s.

A local artist who I am now collaborating with in re-imagining his previous work which will be painted back in-situ. A nod to the culture and heritage of a space.

(Socially engaged art, community arts, participatory art, ethnography, social practice, co-design.) These are all practices which make quite bold claims. But all differ from one another. I have adopted strategies from all of these practices for this particular body of work.

I have engaged with a community, I have co-created, explored the tensions between participant and practitioner, relinquished control, retained control, responded to the desires of the participants, responded to the desires of the commission.

The field of Creative Placemaking is riddled with contradictions.

Exploring the contradictory nature of Creative Placemaking and socially engaged practice reveals furthermore troubling narratives such as artwashing and exploitation strategies like story harvesting.

Socially engaged art is a minefield.

But these tensions must be explored in un-structured and modifiable ways.

As working-class artists and creatives and academics we can explore them together. Across all of our organizations, faculties and institutions.

We must continue to build and re-build our understanding of what creative placemaking means for our people and places.

Through Action Research can we thoroughly and robustly sustain a self-critical, reflective and responsive approach to our community of practice and the organizations and institutions we are a part of. Can we explore the tensions, un-comfortabilities, differences and contradictions of our work through conversation, participation, collaboration and co-operation with each other and the wider communities?

By doing this, a united town of diverse communities and cultures, with fundamental voices regarding political, cultural and social context, could participate within a collaborative discussion about our communities as whole.

Communities equipped to re-write the narrative of Creative Placemaking.

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