Art Gene, Bath Street, Barrow-in-Furness,
Cumbria, LA14 5TY England, UK
Maddi Nicholson and Stuart Bastik have always worked closely with Art Gene’s (Inter)national artists and architects in residence, acting as hosts, introducing artists to the town, its history, current projects and emerging possibilities. Through sharing their practice, personal highlights and the things which keep them fascinated by Barrow, (its challenges and opportunities) new associates can quickly get an insiders view of the town, avoiding the typical residency processes where artists in residence have been decribed as artists in displacement. For Nicholson and Bastik this sharing sheds new light, builds capacity, offers different perspectives and alternative approaches which continually refresh their understanding and reinvigorate the evolution of Art Gene’s research remit.
‘We all adapt to our environment and become desensitised to it. To some extent we become it. This goes for beautiful places as much as ugly ones: I have lived in both. Living in Barrow is not easy you have to work hard to be uplifted by it: It’s challenging more than nurturing but fascinating non the less, it’s edgy, full of contradictions and potentials for creative engagement.’
SB Re-Visioning Utopia Discussion Paper
In 2007 Art Gene formalised the collaborative nature of it’s residencies feeling that this would better enable us to support our resident artists and architects in pursuing our research remit:
‘The role of artists, architects and others in Re-Visioning the regeneration of the social, natural and built environment.’
UHC Collective, as winners of the 2007 Art Gene Open Prize were awarded a two month research residency working collaboratively with Art Gene. The exhibition featured some of the most celebrated artists in the North of England. Although we had not previously known UHC’s work the selection panel were impressed by its directness, activism, poignant commentary and the rigor of the research which underpinned their submitted pieces. Following the prize-giving we met with the whole team a few days later.
We began to develop our ideas with UHC through long walks, discovering hidden assets and having conversations with people we met along the way. The irony being that you don’t have to go far in Barrow to find ‘hidden’ assets which pepper the coastline and sites of historic industrial activity – the nature of these assets’ hiddeness having more to do with them being unrecognised by conventional regeneration which tends to focus on seemingly ‘proven existing models’ which favour large scale infrastructural and economic-growth-focussed approaches rather that socially focussed sustainable development.
Initially we had discussed creating a new mobile temporary event space to engage local people in our research and consultation across a range of different sites. As we discovered more ‘hidden’ assets through walking around Barrow and its Islands our focus gradually shifted to the periphery – the edges and hinterlands where all manner of interesting sites and structures abound. These often derelict, seemingly unloved assets, included vernacular self-built sheds, WW2 pillboxes and historic remnants of earlier and existing industrial activity which have shaped the landscapes, National Nature Reserves and character of the diverse places we immersed ourselves in. It became apparent that we should work directly with these assets and sites to create events inside or around them.
We are grateful to UHC and Arts Council England for awarding additional grant funding to UHC to extend the scope and duration of the residency which enabled us to do some justice to Barrow, its Islands and assets including the communities which ‘live’ them.
Googlebarrow sought out and captured ‘hidden assets’: photographed and measured them before UHC created selected 3D models with the free Google SketchUp software and placed them into Google Earth. The models were projected on the walls of the Art Gene Gallery in the It’s Not As Rough As it Used To Be? launch event.
The Googlebarrow models were the first 3D models in Google Earth of Barrow and the project has successfully inspired and seeded local people’s interest in creating many more, detailing their favourite landmarks in the town, some of which have since been demolished. This interest continues today.
The animated Googlebarrow 3D models created by UHC can be viewed at the bottom of this page and in Google Earth.
Our interest in Art Gene
Like Art Gene, UHC is interested in exploring the social, natural and built environment and in particular the social effects of regeneration in the North West. We have distinctly different approaches to this work however – where Art Gene has worked closely with local regeneration bodies, UHC tend to take a more ‘outsider’ approach, confronting the regeneration industry as a critical outsider/activist. We’d like to see how Art Gene in Barrow works, what initiatives they are involved with and how they maintain their aspirations and creative drive in this environment.
We are also curious about Barrow-in-Furness’ social geography. Its background as a shipyard for the nuclear fleet is of interest to us as anti war campaigners. We are also drawn to Barrow’s many sheds and share Stuart Bastik’s fascination with them. As a group of artists, temporary architectural space is something we like to explore and see interactions with Art Gene as an opportunity to share technical expertise.
Throughout the six years as a group we have focused our efforts locally, having worked mainly in and for Manchester. Most of our recent art work, such as The Thin Veneer of Democracy and Open Manchester, have concentrated on exploring the changing face of Manchester in an age of neo-liberalism, the concept of local identity and the effects of current regeneration strategies on the city’s social and built environment.
Our residency at Art Gene will be UHC’s first artist residency together and simultaneously the first opportunity to seriously project our practice beyond our home city.
In broadening our theoretical base we want to use our time at Art Gene to build on our research into under-utilised public spaces, further develop our working strategies for engaging non-art going, hard to reach audiences and continue exploring the social effects of regeneration in collaboration with communities affected by regeneration agendas.
It’s Not As Rough As it Used To Be? is the title of our collaborative project, it is a series of artist-led incursions into under-utilised public spaces in Barrow, in areas directly or indirectly effected by regeneration.
We’ll be seeking to challenge a broad variety of audiences to question social and geographical entrenchment, isolation and enclosure. It will pose a serious question to people who are rarely (if ever) asked: is where you live getting better or worse? “
It is more exciting than it sounds on paper! – The project will be focused around highlighting underused space and natural assets around Barrow and it’s islands – we hope the work and events will be unlike anything Barrow has ever seen!
Since the supposed demise of co-operative municipal socialism at the hands of successive Conservative governments in the 80’s and 90’s, towns and cities in the UK now compete fiercely with each other to attract inward investment. The big cities of the North led the way: Labour stronghold Manchester (where the artists collective Ultimate Holding Company are from) was perhaps the first council to end the consensus, closely followed by Liverpool and now Leeds and Sheffield.
What gets thrown-up by these tsunamis of economic regeneration are homogenised sterile public spaces and overinflated ‘landmark’ buildings, all swimming in a sea of coffee bars and buy-to-let apartments (that’s rented flats to you and me). This is some planning department or foreign investor’s idea of paradise. In fact the tacky attention seeking, jockeying for prizes – and unabashed showing-off – is no more than an embarrassing old-style beauty pageant. And not even a tasteful one – it’s more like the one where the finalists brawl on the floor over a fake diamond tiara.
The knock-on effect of this circus is being felt in smaller towns like Barrow and has been going on for a while now: They feel the pressure to start competing under the same rules. Like teenage girls trying to look old enough to get into a club, Councillors hunt high and low for their town’s ‘unique selling points’, historical soundbite or cultural real estate – usually with unimaginative results.
So Barrow isn’t an easy sell. From an outsider’s perspective, the perception is that Barrow is a small end-of-the-line industrial town with nuclear warts. A less than glamorous image. Even without competition from the big cities, with Blackpool, Morecambe, the Isle of Man and the Lakes all visible (on a good day) from Barrow, there are obvious and unfavourable comparisons to the big tourist resorts.
This is unmistakably paradise. And as with all beauty spots – it’s right under our noses.
Why? Precisely because there are no coffee shop chains, yuppies, motorways, tacky gift shops and saturation levels of unrealistic posturing -Yet. And this is a glorious and relatively unspoiled coastline. It’s peppered with real gems that are never going to be recognised as assets unless we get imaginative. But gems they are nonetheless. These places are remote and isolated from the town, away from the population and communities, abandoned, vandalised and not traditionally ‘touristy’. They range from odd-looking lighthouses, to WW2 bunkers, sheds, towers, slag mountains, jetties, skeleton boat wrecks, reservoirs, ruined mills, new windfarms, and derelict industrial wastelands.
Focusing here is counter-intuitive, but starting the search for potential assets to the town beyond the obvious gives Barrow and advantage, a bit of extra breadth to the profile. Its also risky, experimental, exciting. It throws a curved ball back at the other pageant contestants.
There is precedence and form to build on too: Barrow, in common with many small towns, has (and to an extent continues to) play fast and loose with it’s natural and visual environment. To that extent no one needs to change the plan, just put a little
Walk across Beach to Stuart Bastik’s Eco Shed, Sandscale Haws National Nature Reserve, Lowsy Point, Barrow for home-cooked food and refreshments. UHC’s Illuminated map pin placed in the beach to mark the site as a hidden asset. Laser Jetty Installation shot from mainland across Walney Channel to a large sand dune in North Walney National Nature Reserve, Walney Island Barrow.
Walk North along West Coast of Walney Island, Barrow from ‘Sandy Gap’ to WW2 Searchlight Emplacement, for home-cooked food and refreshments prepared on site. UHC’s Illuminated map pin placed in the beach to mark the site as a hidden asset. Laser Jetty Installation shot from emplacement to Bootle Rock.
Walk South along causeway between Cavendish Dock and Irish Sea, to WW2 Pill Box and hard standing over Power Station Cooling Pipes which Pass through a Reed Bed, Home-cooked food and refreshments prepared on site. UHC’s Illuminated map pin placed in Reed Bed to mark the site as a hidden asset.
Laser Jetty Installation shot from Pill Box to Headin Haw Island (former Dynamite Store).
Cumbria, LA14 5TY England, UK
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