Jenny Mugridge

Media and English literature

01.A03. Space & Place

Participatory Arts in the City – Bristol

A study of new ways of re-presenting the heritage of a city utilizing creativity and participation.

Nelson St, Bristol

In August 2010 the street art initiative See No Evil took place in Bristol. A collection of internationally renowned street artists, as well as the Bristolian Inkie, took part in turning one of Bristol’s most boring streets into a huge urban arts project (Rkaina, 2011). The three day art and music festival ended with a huge block party and the “biggest permanent street art project in Europe”. Since the 1980s public art has been a large part of urban rejuvenation and has been found to attract students, tourists and businesses. Landry (2000) argues that tourism feeds off culture, but that this culture is often a very narrow category of museums, galleries and heritage. Alain De Botton (2003) talks about Ruskin’s contempt of tourists in the city, saying that so many were concerned only with seeing “the sights” that they did not notice the details – Bristol is a city where the details have now been brought to the front.

As the urban arts movement has spread from Stokes Croft into the centre of Bristol, it has transformed from an illegitimate movement of expression to a sanctioned form of cultural heritage. Barbara Janke of Bristol City Council (2011) talks about graffiti as “part of the character of Bristol” – something that stimulated creativity and meant that Bristol is now represented by the diverse and multinational personalities which leave their mark upon the city. Banksy argued that “you do not have to accept all of mainstream culture, and can start to create your own alternatives instead” (2004) – that is exactly what he and his contemporaries have successfully created in Bristol and other cities like it and now their alternative culture has become a profitable part of the mainstream. Simmel believed that commodification destroyed creativity, that it “hollows out the core of things, their peculiarities, their specific values and their uniqueness and incomparability in a way which is beyond repair” (1903); in this sense, the work in Nelson Street is a considerably different art-form to the tradition of street art in Stokes Croft, “Bristol’s Cultural Quarter” (PRSC, 2009).

The Peoples Republic of Stokes Croft

Phillips (2000) saw the public sphere as a psychological one instead of a physical one – a sphere made of the collective consciousness and creativity of its “psychic composition”. The public is space that share in common and serves to bridge the gap between “public ideals and private impulses, between obligation and desire, between being of a community and solitude.” An example of the use of public space to discuss community issues is in the case of Stokes Croft in Bristol. For years the area has been a thriving multicultural area and at the forefront of the urban arts movement – it also has an exceptionally strong sense of community spirit. In 2010 and 2011, the people of Stoke’s Croft put up a lengthy and mostly peaceful protest against the opening of a Tesco in the area. Thousands of postcards were sent to the council and protests were arranged to prevent the eviction of squatters from the soon-to-be Tesco residence, which unfortunately culminated in a riot (Bowcott, 2011). The amount of street art protest that went on around the time was incredible – the wall of Stokes Croft became a template for advertising against the companies and raising important local issues. One of the most iconic pieces used the slogan “Think Local – Boycott Tesco”, with a character saying “93% of local people say no to Tesco”. Other pieces of work around the area featured the “Think Local” slogan. The community uses their environment for their needs, knowing what is good for the area and its’ people by having an open discussion constantly going on in the public sphere. Landry talks about the “creative milleu” being vital to the creative city – this is certainly evident in Stokes Croft where “creative people, processes, ideas and products” (Landry, 2000) are constantly being shared.

Another important component of the Stokes Croft community is the People’s Republic of Stoke’s Croft. In their mission statement (PRSC, 2009), alongside fostering creativity and expression, they also talk about the heritage of old buildings and that they should be active parts of the cultural shaping of their city’s history. This idea of “history from below” (Thomson, 1966) resists the idea that history is written by the winners by representing an everyman perspective and is especially fitting as a communist school of thought in a liberal, anarchic area. This is why areas like Stokes Croft oppose the demolition or destruction of buildings, but feel that the current community should be able to mark its own feelings upon it. A burned-out building in Stokes Croft is the future site for a huge mural which will serve to “re-introduce the building to the public” (PRSC, Unknown date) – instead of needlessly protecting valuable sites, it is instead used as a tableau of the culture of the city without being irreparably damaged. Hewison notes that “the protection of the past conceals the destruction of the present” (Urry, 2000), a theory which suggests that by making heritage untouchable, they are denying the present their own uses of it.

The deepest problems of modern life flow from the attempts of the individual to maintain the independence and individuality of his existence against the sovereign powers of society, against the weight of the historical heritage and the external culture and technique of life. Georg Simmel – The Metropolis and Mental Life

Bristol’s niche

Artistic graffiti has become semi-legal in Bristol since 2009 when the council announced that if graffiti was not “offensive or unsightly” (Crewe, 2011) and no one objected to its presence, it would be allowed to stay. This came after a poll in 2005 in which the public of Bristol voted online as to whether a piece of Banksy’s work should be kept on a council building in the centre – the decision to stay came in at 93% of the voters (Davies, 2009). Online polls now decide whether graffiti is art or not, and whether to keep it – the resounding opinion often being yes. The people of Bristol decided that they wanted the city to reflect their lives and issues, that they should “give shape to their environments, and share knowledge, ideas and self-expression” (Gauntlet, 2011) – this has lead to a majority of the areas around the centre of Bristol having lax rules regarding graffiti as well as more and more sanctioned wall space for artwork.

Landry noted in The Creative City that every city is capable of having a unique niche, that “every city could be a world centre for something if it was persistent and tried hard enough” (Landry, 2000). As just a few examples, Brighton is famous for its LGBT scene, York for its heritage, and Bristol for its urban arts and music scene. For the people at work in these scenes, they want an alternative voice to be heard, their voice – and as Banksy argues, “asking for permission [to make a mark on your surroundings] is like asking to keep a rock someone just threw at your head” (2004). The public’s uses of their community, especially in inner-city impoverished areas such as Stokes Croft, are vital in order for the city to truly reflect its diverse community, and as this has spread to the centre of Bristol the city has managed to establish its niche firmly within the mainstream cultures of the city.

Banksy and Partcipation

Bristol has long had an association with street art, but it has become significantly more popular since the anonymous Banksy’s rise to fame. Famous for his work around Bristol – especially the Stoke’s Croft area – and London, he curated an exhibition of new works in the Bristol City Museum called Bansky vs Bristol which attracted over 300,000 visitors from around the world in the three months it was open (This is Bristol, 2009). The museum reported £45,000 in donations, four times their normal annual amount, and businesses in the area made approximately £10,000,000 extra during the exhibit. In some areas of Bristol, Banksy’s work has been torn down and sold, or carefully preserved from vandalism by public funding.

Banksy talked about his role in society in saying that advertisers were bullies who force images and negative messages upon the public, and that it was only fair that the people who are subjected to these messages are able to make messages of their own (Banksy, 2004). Berman (1983) notes that “we have mostly lost the art of putting ourselves in the picture, of recognizing ourselves as participants and protagonists in the art and thought of our time” – perhaps graffiti and guerilla art present a canvas for the voice of the city and resistance against the multitude of messages they are exposed to every day. The only true public space is what remains after developers have rented or sold most of it for commercial or residential purposes, and these are often public institutions which are largely expected to look presentable.

A short documentary about the Nelson Street “See No Evil” project in Bristol

Image © Sam Saunders

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