From 2012 - 2013 I worked collaboratively with Gerard Williams as PWP (Plowman Williams Partnership) on art commissions for the public realm. Plowman and Williams have over 50 years experience of working to produce sculpture for a wide range of organizations using an extensive variety of materials and processes. This involvement has successfully resulted in sculpture sited in relation to sensitive architectural contexts both nationally and internationally, including for London, New York, Kiev, Dusseldorf etc. PWP have worked with large budgets, including publicly funded projects and are familiar with demanding deadlines. PWP worked in relation to the parameters of the commission in hand, devising tailor made solutions in materials appropriate to the specifics of the situation. It was essential to PWP that the work produced is audience accessible – the general public is considered the key audience. And yet, it is important that the artwork produced by PWP meets the standards of the best contemporary art practice both in terms of craftsmanship, seen as appropriateness of material and means, and relative to agenda, identified as specific contemplative stimulus. The authorship of the work was collaborative.
In October 2012 Derby City Council, in partnership with QUAD, Derby commissioned Plowman Williams Partnership (PWP) to deliver a three-month public engagement process for the Blank Canvasses public art project. The aim of the project is to create high-quality, creative public art along Mercian Way, part of the Derby inner ring road. Providing a high quality built environment and creating an appropriate gateway to the Derby city centre. The City Centre Regeneration Framework (CCRF) Action Plan Capital Programme provided funding for the artist engagement process and to implement a pilot project. PWP’s aim through this public engagement process was to develop and realise a series of permanent artworks along Mercian Way, part of the Derby inner ring road. We delivered the project from January-March 2013. By adopting a dialogical approach which acknowledged the individuality of the people we worked with, seeing them as co-participants with whom we shared a sense of purpose. Through this process we were able to instigate a meaningful, productive dialogue, one which enabled us to develop the creative vision for three permanent artworks.
We were aware at the start of the engagement process that we were adopting a, relatively, high risk strategy but we were confident that this would be the best way to achieve our aims which were to:
Cultivate a collaborative community spirit, that has grown out of and acknowledges its context and the potential offered by it.
Work with interested individuals based in the locality, be they residents, businesses, visitors or workers.
Develop links with and a focus upon the knowledge and skills that already exist in the locality.
Deploy these assets as much as possible.
By the end of the three month process we were extremely pleased with how well it had gone. It far exceeded our expectations and has delivered on each of the aims outlined above.
Mercian Way Research Station
The Mercian Way Research Station was modeled on a shipping container site hut and was installed on sited from 3 – 15 January 2013, it was during this period that initial phase of the public engagement process began. During this time of frenetic activity we had a number of conversations about the Blank Canvasses project with people who lived and worked in the area.
It was sited on the grassed area adjacent to the desire line that heads from Monk Street (South West) and Dunkirk to cross the Mercian Way towards Abbey Street car park. We saw this as a key location it being a crossing/passing point for pedestrians, cyclists and drivers. Allowing us to maximize opportunities for public engagement.
To increase the visibility of the container we ‘branded’ the exterior with signage using a specially designed Mercian Way font.
Keith Jeffrey from QUAD officially launched the MWRS on 25th January despite the snow there was a good turn out of local residents, business people and council officials. To act as a focal point for the launch also in attendance was a donkey named ‘Desire’. The rationale for this was to refer to the donkey’s innate ability at finding the easiest route from A to B making a connection with the way that the pedestrian users of Mercian Way have created unofficial, but well trodden short cuts or desire lines, whilst negotiating and traversing Mercian Way.
The donkey was a great attraction and helped us get publicity for the project in both Derby Telegraph 26th January (a page three article and a photo) and an interview on BBC Derby’s breakfast show. We toured the area with the donkey giving out copies of the first edition of Word Works (please see below) helping us to begin to spread the word about the MWRS and the Blank Canvasses project.
The Mercian Way Research Station opened to the public on 17 January and closed its doors on 23 March 2013. During this time it was open on Thursday – Saturday each week from 12-4pm. The MWRS quickly established itself as a part of the local community a very visible fixture, albeit temporary, of the cityscape. Over this period of time the MWRS became a meeting room, rendezvous point, laboratory, exhibition space and information centre. We had a constant stream of visitors and had a meaningful (15 minutes +) conversation with 390 people, (see appendix 1). Accessible to all, the MWRS was a place where anyone could get information about the project, its values and aims consequently we spoke to people from all walks of life, backgrounds and ages.
The success of the MWRS is in no large part due to the help PWP had from the pool of 7 volunteers who helped out during opening hours over the course of the project. Our volunteers were students or recent graduates for whom the experience of being involved in the project was very beneficial as noted by one who said:
‘Thank you for giving me this wonderful opportunity it’s been a great experience and I have met some amazing people. If you need any help in Derby on the future, don’t hesitate to ask, it will be a pleasure.’
To facilitate the engagement process we built a mobile periscope this was positioned at different points alongside the Mercian Way during opening hours. It made people curious they would stop and have a look affording them a different viewpoint of the cityscape becoming an effective engagement tool.
A key part or our engagement strategy was to reach out beyond the perimeters of the MWRS and meet with and connect to local community and business groups. To this end we attended a meeting of the Abbey Neighbourhood forum and gave a brief presentation about the MWRS and the engagement process we were undertaking. We also have met with the following: Julia Hodder, YMCA Derbyshire; Helen Faulconbridge, Derby Homes; Ian Hinds and Jeffrey Jones, St. Peters Quarter BID. We have been in regular contact and continue to do so with Lydia Wahid, Landau Forte School; Keith Venables, Derby People History Group. Finally Jane Flewitt and Matt Chell of Becket School where the periscope is now housed ensuring its continued presence and enjoyment by the community.
The key activity of the MWRS was having conversations with people in which we discussed their thoughts, memories and ideas about Derby, the local area and artworks. As mentioned above the periscope was an essential part of our information gathering process. It allowed people to be curious becoming the catalyst by which we could start a conversation to elicit views about the project.
The key points from conversations we had with people either with the periscope or visitors to the MWRS were noted and displayed on the walls of the research station acting as prompts for further conversations.
As a result of the success of the first public engagement process for the Blank Canvasses project PWP were awarded the commission to realise the first of three sculptures to be sited along Mercian Way. Whilst working on the design, fabrication and installation of the sculpture we also delivered a second public engagement process, entitled SPEPNIK, to work with the culturally diverse communities living and working in and around the Green Lane/Normanton Road area. We invited comments on and contributions to our ideas and design for the sculpture from everyone. We were keen to ensure that there is an embedded and engaged community with a true sense of ownership of the new sculpture prior to its fabrication and installation in September 2014. Our ambition was to deliver a new piece of high quality contemporary sculpture as a part of the city’s regeneration programme.
Mission Control was:
1. Venue for artist led workshops for the community, exhibition and engagement activities.
2. Open door space where local people can contribute to the final form of the sculpture.
3. Information centre where people can find out about the project.