Through The Letterbox

It’s bank holiday Monday of the summer half term and yesterday Dear Neighbour finally dropped!

 

Housemates were roped in to filling envelopes and making blobs of blu-tack, and then I skipped down the street with my postbag. Except it was actually quite nerve-wracking; I walked furtively, glancing over my shoulder between houses. Even though I had tried to work around being intrusive, it felt a bit uncomfortable stopping at every door, especially those that had brushy bit in their letterbox or ‘No Junk Mail’ emblazoned across it. Curtains twitched but I was heartened when I heard a little voice shout triumphantly “It’s got blu-tack!!”

 

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Just as I was reaching the end of the row of odd numbers, a lady ran up the road towards me. Uh oh. I remembered my risk assessment. Say it’s an art project. Say it’s for Uni. I didn’t need to worry, she just wanted to know more about it – her children were excited and she wanted to tell me who else on the street would definitely join in, it appears some people do actually know their neighbours! We had a lovely chat and I told her about some of my ideas, she was really enthused and I realised that yes, it had already worked. With Conversation 1 under my belt I’m sure that a few things were being said behind closed doors and in the evening I had an excited text message from one of my flatmates – they’d spotted the first portrait up in a window. There are PARTICIPANTS!!

 

I asked my neighbours to put up their drawings by Wednesday, so watch this space!

Why I’m Doing This and Where it Could Go…

You might be wondering why I’m doing this, so I’ll try and explain a bit about the background behind project and how it could move forward.

The project will explore ideas of ‘community’, a weighted word that can even suggest exclusion. Can an art project foster a new community? Would that be a positive thing? Do people like to participate? By working within the confines of a street I am not approaching a pre-defined demographic in terms of age, ethnicity, ability or anything else; these people simply live in a long line.

The Whitechapel Gallery, which is just down the road from me, actually started to explore this idea in their three-year project called, wait for it… The Street! But this has not led to a change across the board.

whitechapel

The Whitechapel Gallery and the shop they set up in for The Street project (Whitechapel Gallery website)

Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archive still targets ‘minorities’ as project participants and unfortunately our borough council is completely unsupportive of artists using empty spaces. The Street was only possible because of an enormous budget partly provided by the investment bank J P Morgan- they had half a million pounds to play with. Although the Whitechapel emphasised the departure from ‘bricks and mortar’ in this project, they simply left the gallery during its expansion works and rented an  empty shop. So who is really gaining? Why is so much money spent when there’s nothing much to show at the end? If this art is just about people, can’t it be done without corporate sponsorship and the clout of an institution’s letterhead?

My own project tries to address these questions and sidestep the system; I’ll be starting out on my own and I’ve kept the costs as low as possible so I can cover them myself. Two weeks after the first letter I’ll post invitations to a Sunday coffee morning and this should get the ball rolling. I want to give my neighbours an opportunity to chat and say what they thought about my letter, conversation is the most important and interesting thing about participatory art and listening will shape the future of the project. Although I have ideas of where it could go, nothing should be predetermined- this will take perseverance and lots of cups of tea!

One of great things about not being aligned with an organisation is that there is no fixed timeframe, obviously these sorts of projects are durational and yet arbitrary timescales are usually fixed from the outset. Weekly tea meetings or workshops will not only shape the future of the project but will also be a regular way to meet new people and shun the ironic isolation that comes with living in such a big city. I won’t have to fork out for this stage as we can just meet in the local subsidised arts cafe, in the primary school hall at the end of the road or even in Stepney Green Park.

My street - then and now (top photo from the Tower Hamlets Archive)

My street – then and now (top photo from the Tower Hamlets Archive)

As a resident myself, I will put forward the idea of planning an event for everyone on the street, but probably not a ‘street party’ because there are so many cars now. There’s a long history of local fairs and in the 1960’s celebrities opened ‘fayres’ at the primary school! A group of residents could organise an annual event to bring everyone together, perhaps with food stalls and a stage. There would also be an opportunity for things like an oral history recording booth to document experiences of living on the street and since our houses were built on land where rope was made, it would be rude not to have a tug of war! 

There would be bigger costs at this point, we could use a crowd funding campaign, all chip in or apply for a grant- there are some available from the council. It’s important that this is organised by a collective of resident participants, because one of the side affects of J P Morgan’s generosity is that lots of socially engaged art projects aren’t actually valued by participants. If all the funding is left to me then the project will not really have been co-created and might not be worth anything to anyone else. 

You can see that participatory art is complicated and debatable so I think it’s worth trying something out!

 

Hello

My project is an experiment. It will play with participatory art, which was once confined to the education departments of museums and galleries but has recently been taken over by contemporary artists. This really took off in the nineties, but Futurist and Paris Dada performances and mass spectacles back in the early 20th century set the tone. I want to try and liberate this form from the gallery space and the education room and put it back onto the street: the very London street that I live on…

Where I live

Where I live

 I’m not an artist or a social worker, but it would be interesting to see whether a participatory art project could build new relationships between neighbours, something that lives on and doesn’t just sit in a cobwebby archive or unopened coffee-table book. This kind of ‘art’ is difficult to record and has no particular aesthetic or material outcome, so a blog full of thoughts and some photos seems a good way to share it with anyone who might be interested!