Sunday, 29 January 2012

Exploring Common Ground

One of the things that interests me when I'm exploring a place is exploring as a group.  (See examples in some of our Wellbeing Walks here.)

Different people are drawn to different things and it's always interesting to discover the knowledge that people have about wildlife, hedgerows, aeroplanes, history, civil engineering, foraging etc.  All these things can become part of the conversation inspired by whatever you come across on your explorative walk.

Corby Community Arts exhibition poster, 2006
I'm also fascinated by walking with children.  First of all children see things from a different height to adults, so they often spot things low down or on the floor that we don't!  Also, they seem to pay attention to detail (perhaps it's because they still have good eyesight!), they often spot the ladybird or a teeny weeny glittering shard of stone that I would NEVER have noticed on my own!  I've been involved in quite a few projects now putting cameras into the hands of children to record how they see the world.

Thinking about people and places, I went to the Decolonizing Architecture seminar at Nottingham Contemporary yesterday.  Amongst other things, they were talking about the notions of public, private and common space.  This got me thinking again about some of my early Corby projects in Corby town centre a few years ago.  (See the Thinkspace website for the project archive.)

Working as an artist "in the public realm" brings you right into the politics of space.  If you want to make anything happen in a space that is accessible to the public you open a can of worms in terms of who owns that space, who makes the decisions about what happens there, who controls it, are you able to criticise it etc.  Just finding out who controls a space can be difficult - for example, the Highways Agency might be responsible for the roads and paths, but the Borough Council might be responsible for the green strips along the edge of them.  With any patch of land you have to work out which bit is Council, Highways or private... and sometimes you have to negotiate with all three of them to make anything happen!  What we often take for granted as "public" space is always overseen by somebody and is never as public as we like to think.

Permission to Play Debate Day by Thinkspace, 2006. Photo by Kate Dyer.
As a result of the first Thinkspace project in Corby town centre, I set up a debate day called Permission to Play to talk about people using public space, and invited planners, architects, councillors and local people to the event to talk about the regeneration of Corby.

Which brings me to the notion of common ground.  This is something, I think, that we have largely lost in the UK, and more specifically in England (you can still free camp in some parts of Scotland, for example).  Common ground is not controlled by the public (the state) or the private (enterprise or personal property). In fact, it is uncontrolled.  Therefore anybody can use it, which includes nature, for as I have written before nature always moves in wherever humans move out!

Having a space which is uncontrolled is something we all seek and also fear.  We want somewhere where we can be ourselves without restriction, or to reconnect with nature where it has reclaimed ground.  One of my favourite writers Robert Macfarlane writes about our deep desire to seek out the wilderness (read The Wild Places - it's brilliant!).  And yet if there is lack of control there is also anarchy, and that is something fearful.

If you're interested in the idea of common ground you should really go and see the Decolonizing Architecture exhibition at Nottingham Contemporary.  A very interesting show that raises all sorts of questions about the way we claim and occupy space and ways in which it can be reclaimed - or, in some instances, just given back to nature.

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