Meshworking Cultural Well-Being 16.01.2013

Commissioned and published by ixia, the public art think tank, 16.01.2013

Following the launch of the National Planning Policy Framework in 2012, public art has been encouraged to seek new definition within the term ‘cultural well-being’. Assumptions based on the mechanisms for public art established in the 1980s may now be redundant. Instead, artists, planners and funders may need to look again at the cultural ambitions of the post-War reconstruction programme, and how these informed the social aspiration for engaged arts practices of the late 1960s/early 1970s, to recover more meaningful ways to contribute to future planned development. Equally, it is now important for artists, and others engaged in the delivery and funding of public art, to establish new ways of working that recognise the difference between the ‘democratisation of culture’ and place-shaping ‘cultural democracy’.

Read ixia article:

Bold Statements: Asociación de Arte Útil

Meshwork Worcester is an artist-led (Arts Council England funded) intervention into formal Planning processes, in partnership with Worcester City Council. The project refocuses the Planning process to ensure city development maximises ‘cultural well-being’. In this, culture is understood as “social and political functionings in addition to intellectual and aesthetic functionings” (Amartya Sen and others) rather than the provisioning of new cultural buildings as promoted by national government Planning policy. Meshwork Worcester is informed by the work of anthropologist Tim Ingold re. notions of ‘taskscape’ and ‘creative improvisation’. It develops Planning policy, intervenes at sub-master plan levels via walking / drawing / talking strategies, and proposes new use for redundant buildings and under-used public spaces in Worcester city centre. Meshwork Worcester is identified by Arts Council England as a project of national significance, and contributes to a two year national Arts & Humanities Research Council funded project ‘to understand the value of arts and culture’.

At a time of contracting civic responsibilities, Meshwork Worcester ensures Planning gain supports ‘cultural well-being’ and social benefit via improvisation and trickster tactics, by flattening and opening out Planning decision making processes and building a virtuous circle of funding and opportunity that supports artists and other cultural producers in the city. In this, Meshwork Worcester builds on Worcester’s backstory of creative and cultural innovation (particularly porcelain production) to construct local enabling infrastructure and inward investment based on strategic alliance. As Patricia Phillips once said, the goal “is not just to produce another thing for people to admire, but to create opportunities, situations that enable viewers to look back at the world with unique perspectives and clear angles of vision.” Meshwork Worcester is a sign of life during a prolonged period of austerity and restraint that resists footloose development and promotes greater participation in city-building programmes.

Meshwork Worcester has authored new Planning guidance for use in development negotiations. It also reframes Worcester as an ‘Extraordinary City’ via alliance building, presentation, publication and exhibition. On a very practical level, Meshwork Worcester has informed directly new urban form activity by (for example) the creation of a new East/West axis through the city and proposals for land use/re-use/change in the city’s flood plain. In terms of the latter, Meshwork Worcester promotes the symbolic and practical use of sunflowers and artichokes.

Beyond the two year national Arts & Humanities Research Council funded project ‘to understand the value of arts and culture’, Meshwork Worcester also informs policy and programme development beyond the city as a national case study (‘opinion pieces’) for ‘ixia’, the national public art think tank for England. It also comments to Arts Council England on the government’s National Planning Policy Framework 2012. Meshwork Worcester also functions as a laboratory opportunity that informs other project work undertaken by its lead artists (either individually or collectively) in other places.

Worcester Public Art: ‘the Extraordinary City’ (Public Art Policy Text)

There are sunflowers in the architecture…Worcester Public Art: ‘the Extraordinary City’

When it comes to the contribution of art and artists to city-building, Worcester is already unrivalled in terms of how artists have shaped, defined and enriched the city over time.  It has always been an extraordinary city, capable of delivering extraordinary art and cultural juxtaposition.  Whether that be the result of the 87 masons and sculptors who found work in the city between 1747 and the end of the 19th century, or the numerous painters, modellers, gilders and decorators who worked in the many china and porcelain works up until recent times, or those who continue to arrive in the city wanting to simply capture a view or give a performance.

It is said that the largest part of the ‘Perseus and Andromeda’ fountain at Witley Court, “a stone weighing 20 tons”, was “hauled on a road wagon pulled by 17 shire horses” through the streets of Worcester on its way to Great Witley.  The ambition for contemporary public art in Worcester is to match, if not to exceed, what in its history was simply business as normal.  To have seen Perseus and Pegasus in the act of rescuing Andromeda from the Dragon, encircled with grotesque fish and shells, processing through the streets of Worcester would be an extraordinary experience at any point in time.

Definitions of public art change over time.  When Worcester-born sculptor Sir Thomas Brock lectured the city’s art and design students in 1913 (the year he was granted the Freedom of the City), he confidently declared that “The fundamental purpose of art…is to elevate and refine.”  Now, a century later, public art is “about the free field, the play of creative vision.  The point is not just to produce another thing for people to admire, but to create opportunities, situations that enable viewers to look back at the world with unique perspectives and clear angles of vision. … Public art is a sign of life.” [Patricia Phillips: ‘Public Art – The New Agenda’]

It is in this definition of public art, as something that creates opportunities and situations, that artists will continue to contribute successfully to Worcester’s cultural richness.  Public art is the play of creative vision engaged in place shaping processes.  As such, it is not an art form (public art is not just outdoor sculpture), but a free field of possibilities that  “encompasses art commissioned as a response to notions of place, art commissioned as part of the designed environment, and process-based artistic practice that does not rely on the production of an art object” [ixia, the national public art think tank].  In this, artists will:

• collaborate with architects and the other design professionals on capital build and infrastructure projects;

• engage creatively with communities to understand issues of local significance; and/or

• research the city’s history, usage and context to inform development proposals.

This guidance is an opportunity to encourage public art that is forward facing and fully embedded in the future city-building aspirations of Worcester.