Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Missing Houses and Possible Plans

by Becky Ayre (Researcher, Inheritance Projects)

Support Structure with a Clumber Spaniel and owners 

Clumber is a vast expanse of park, farm and woodland on the Northern borders of Nottinghamshire. Amongst the wildlife, the Serpentine Lake, the campsites and the cycle tracks, there lies a space that exists to remind visitors of what is no longer there. The mansion that once stood at Clumber was demolished in 1938, leaving only traces of itself behind in the landscape that The National Trust would later purchase in 1946 from the people of Worksop, who inherited the grounds from the previous owner, the Duke of Newcastle. Much of the collection of art and furniture was sold off and dispersed around the country and the world, while the bricks were made use of around Nottinghamshire. As the result of a recent period in residence at Clumber, the artists group Support Structure recently seized upon this notable gap in the landscape and the park’s history as an opportunity to invite users of the grounds to imagine new possibilities for the future of the park.

The Residents is a series of artists in residence programmes at three regional National Trust properties, curated by Inheritance Projects in partnership with Nottingham Contemporary, BALTIC and The National Media Museum. The challenge put to the artists/artists group by Inheritance Projects in considering their time in residence, while taking the opportunity to develop their own practice, was to engage critically with the historical and contemporary contexts of the designated properties in order to scrutinize the ways and means that The National Trust protects, preserves and promotes notions of English national heritage. How could an artist working in residence with The National Trust, an organization that holds something of a monopoly over, and responsibility for, the Country’s known social history, challenge or unsettle otherwise dominant narratives in national heritage? While in residence at Clumber, Support Structure (research-architect Celine Condorelli and artist-curator Gavin Wade) met with historians and various users of the park to learn more about the absent house, including how the building was utilised until it was demolished. They also spent time investigating various unrealised proposals for other buildings at Clumber Park and around the world. This led them to discover the story of a house designed by Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe for the Kröller-Müller family in the Netherlands. Although a full-scale fabric and wood structure was erected of the final design for this house, the Kröller-Müllers ultimately decided that the house was unsuitable and it was never built. Between a house that was but no longer is, and a house that never was, Support Structure have imagined new possibilities and stories that resonate in the unfinished histories of such social and architectural ambitions.

Hazel Robinson, Gardener, 1:1000 model of Clumber House, 2011-12
The research undertaken while in residence has accumulated in a series of proposals for changes to the future conditions of Clumber Park, on-site and at Nottingham Contemporary- the partner institution for the residency. These proposals are presented in a new publication, co-published by Nottingham Contemporary and distributed to all visitors at Clumber Park and are aimed at discovering and producing new stories, generating new ideas in a manner that seeks to support new social and communitarian potentials for the site where Clumber’s mansion once stood. The publication’s launch on February 24th at Nottingham Contemporary will be with a panel of presentations aimed at further illuminating the threads of research pulled out by Support Structure from Clumber’s varied history, and from the story of the unrealized house in the Netherlands. A weekend-long programme of events from Nottingham Contemporary and Clumber will follow.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Do Zebras like snow? By Mr Zebra

Last weekend I was out and about in Nottingham distributing flyers and button badges (promoting the Half Term Holiday Happenings). There were few takers that morning...those amongst you who had ventured out were focused upon remaining on two legs...treacherous conditions underfoot. It was remarkable that several people who passed before me were ill prepared for this current spell of mushy coat, their arms tightly wrapped around their own bodies...shivering and struggling to remain balanced...and likewise Mr. Zebra; shivering... at a a lion. I am certainly not primed for this weather. I remind myself that this is only my third winter here in the UK and I rarely ventured out during the previous two winters...I do not particularly like the damp and the snow here in the UK seems to be shoddy is good for about an hour then its rubbish.

I started to worry about Trench Foot.

Trench foot is a medical condition caused by prolonged exposure of the feet to damp, unsanitary, and cold conditions...trench foot does not require freezing temperatures.

...and my four appendages were most certainly damp! We Zebras are used to warmer climates and without doubt we can shiver in very cold weather just like humans...I observed this the preceding Sunday; I stood by the right Lion in the Old Market Square, my mitts sodden and icy after walking through the remnants of some fetid mushy snow. I remember grandma Lucy used to tell me a story; she said that we zebras were all white at one time. One day Zebra (For Zebra existed as our primary character) was hiding from Lion by standing in the tall grass. He stood there for so long and held very still the whole time so that Lion would not see him. The hot sun cast the shadows of the blades of grass across the white of Zebra's body. He stood there so long that the shadows became permanent and that is why we Zebra are striped to this day. Back to the Market Square. 

After about an hour I somewhat wretchedly capitulated and did the commonsensical thing and called it a day...if the Local Derby; Derby and Forest could be called off, then I also could concede defeat. I returned home...put my four feet up on the sofa and settled down to watch an Audrey Hepburn film on DVD (Sabrina). As a rule I will not place my muddy hooves on the sofa...on this occasion I decided I deserved it.

Friday, 3 February 2012

A Common Assembly

Reflections on the DAAR seminar and a follow up at Primary Studios. By artist Rebecca Beinart

Last weekend I attended the Decolonizing Architecture Art Residency seminar, 'A Common Assembly'.  The event was described as 'a one day seminar within DAAR’s reconstruction of the Palestinian Parliament' that would 'consider the new nature of political action and association, against the background of current collective protest in the Middle East and around the world.' The  term Common Assembly was defined as 'a radical form of political participation, revolutionary protest and collective action - from Cairo’s Tahrir Square, St Paul’s Cathedral - and Nottingham’s Market Square. These forums have changed the meaning of the words common, assembly and occupation.' I was excited to see how DAAR would put these ideas into action at Nottingham Contemporary.

The invited speakers shared interesting experiences, reflections and analysis of the situation in Palestine and recent uprisings in the Middle East, and I learnt a lot from listening to them. It would be impossible to sum up all that was said, but some of the ideas that were of particular interest to me were the notion of a 'no mans land' or edge between places as a potential place of transformation, and the way that DAAR used the term 'ruins' to refer to a place (like the Palestinian refugee camps) that's in permanent suspension between construction and demolition. Rasha Salti described the protests in Egypt and Syria as a 'physical political movement'. She talked about people in Syria, confined by the authorities, dancing together in the street, and how visible and vulnerable the body is in these situations. In the final session, Rene Gabri talked about the Occupy movement in New York, and offered another reading of the idea of 'deficit' and 'debt' that goes beyond monetary systems, suggesting that recent protests have been driven by people demanding what is owed to them in terms of democracy and participation.

Although the seminar was rich with ideas, I was surprised – given the way it had been described – to experience a series of lectures, in a space with problematic acoustics, with experts giving their opinions and dialogue mostly limited to the exchanges between the invited speakers. The notion of a 'radical form of political participation' was being discussed in a very conventional, academic format. There was little attempt (until the final session) to reactivate the space created by the installation and to actually embody these ideas by inviting and facilitating participation from the 50-60 people who had come along to the event. DAAR's installation interrupts the gallery space and is deliberately uninhabitable, so perhaps this irony was intentional. But it was also frustrating. Given DAAR's imaginative and critical responses to the the situation in Palestine, and that their project and this talk were being presented in the context of a public art gallery, I had hoped for a more open and accessible form of dialogue. There was a wealth of information being shared, but no clear way for the audience to actively engage with this information or do something with it afterwards. For a day that promised to be empowering as well as informative, I left feeling disappointed.

Pre-empting the fact that day-long seminars often leave questions hanging, Isobel Whitelegg, curator of Public Programmes at Nottingham Contemporary, invited me to host a follow-up event the next day. Ayreen Anastas and Rene Gabri stayed on for the day to meet with locally based artists and activists to reflect on some of the issues raised by the seminar. Ayreen and Rene are involved in (amongst other things) a self-organised space in New York called the 16 Beaver Group, that aims to 'create and maintain an ongoing platform for the presentation, production, and discussion of a variety of artistic/ cultural/ economic/ political projects.'
On Sunday, a mixture of people came along to the recently opened Primary Studios in Lenton, to share ideas and experiences from their involvement in artist run projects, education, and activism. Although it was another long day of talking and listening, the small group and informal setting allowed for everyone to speak, and made space for disagreement, challenges and common ground to emerge. The discussion was rich and covered a lot of territory. We talked about the way that different spaces open up the possibilities for interaction and of activating our time with others politically and creatively. We discussed the differences between institutions, self-organised spaces, and public spaces and what each of these sites opens up or closes down. We talked about our roles within groups or institutions and our roles as individuals – and how to share the various resources we have access to. Questions were raised about access and how this is often limited in ways that go beyond physical space, such as the language used to frame an event, the perception of who certain institutions are 'for', or the lack of provision of cheap food and child-friendly spaces. Something that came up several times was the question of time, and how difficult but necessary it is to open up time for conversation, listening, reflection and action.
During the seminar, I raised the question of why DAAR's work, and this conversation, were being framed within an art gallery – what does this add or take away in terms of the agency and power of such political work? It was interesting to hear Rene and Ayreen describe their own relationship with the label 'artist' and how the 16 Beaver Group works – as an independent space that avoids labels. They were clear on the danger of claiming all of the work that happens there as 'artwork'. This raised big questions about participation and authorship, returning us to the notion of the commons. It may be inappropriate to frame something as art when it's social activism, especially if it emerges from a collective process, because claiming it as art can remove the agency of many of the people involved. We talked about why and how artists work within the realm of social activism, the problem with labels, and how art could at times be considered a strategy. Where art and activism cross over, can we open up political spaces that go beyond conventional forms?
The decision by Nottingham Contemporary to host such political work brings up some important contradictions, but the function of the Public Programme is for opening up space for debate, reflection and learning around the exhibitions. And for me, the art galley is another public space – not a commons – but a space that can be used and potentially re-appropriated[1].  Having just moved into Primary Studios, which is a very new arts space, it was fantastic to have the opportunity to invite in a diverse group and pose these questions about access, participation and political engagement – which are relevant to my own practice as well as the possible directions the studios might take. Primary is situated on what someone described as one of the city's 'fault lines': a school that is no longer a school, between a disintegrating community and rapidly empting student accommodation. Many of these questions will become pertinent as we try to develop a public programme around the studios.

Many thanks to Isobel Whitelegg for initiating the event, and to Ayreen Anastas, Rene Gabri and  all those who came and took part in the conversation for their thoughtful and thought provoking contributions.

Rebecca Beinart is an independent artist based in Nottingham. The opinions expressed in this article are her own and she does not represent Primary.

[1]          For an example of a project that attempted this, see 'C Words' at Arnolfini by PLATFORM.