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Byker

After completing the project, I wanted to write a little bit about Sons and Daughters of Byker and the East End, my public art project for Byker Metro.

I am proud of the project's outcomes, and just as importantly, I have a fond memory of a period of working in an area that I will greatly miss. For me, the biggest success was as follows:

When the design was in its final stages, I was given advice by one of the (very helpful and supportive) arts workers seconded to the project by the transport company. They advised me that the final design featured lots of white space, human faces, and being floor-to-ceiling, was within the physical reach of any age. It might be wise to submit the design to a process that would 'vandalism-proof' it, as it was basically prime graffiti opportunity. I declined, because it just felt wrong. I had made a public artwork, and if local teenage kids didn't like it, I should know about that - even if the information came through the medium of sharpies and car paint.
We had the preview. It was a great end to the process, and I met some wonderful people. Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen (who features in the work) came to see it, which was an honour. I went back to visit and thank a lot of people the week after, and stopped to take a photo of the work in situ. No vandalism. I went back three months later, whilst visiting the city to keep up friendships with a few people I'd met whilst making it. Still no marks. I went back six months later - three months longer than the initial time the artwork was supposed to be in situ for. An older man was standing infront of the design with his daughter, who might have been around ten years old. He was pointing out the different characters to her, and explaining who they were. Still, not a mark in sight.
It might sound stupid to be grateful that a public artwork isn't defaced. But any rider of public transport knows that a matt white picture of Cheryl Cole, three feet from the floor, is pretty much the best graffiti opportunity that's ever existed. For that to stay unmarked for six months, situated directly between the estate and local pubs - people have to really like it.

I'm not saying I did everything right, and there's a lot I would do differently if I undertook the same work again. But I think I did a few things that led to the work's acceptance (and even appreciation) by people who, after all, have to live with it. I'm not basing appreciation solely on non-vandalism obviously - I heard many kind things from people on subsequent visits - but the way someone behaves around work when it's 3am, they're drunk and you're nowhere to be seen, says a lot. That's when I tell friends the things that really matter to me, after all.

Lessons:

-The work was built around the local area. I wanted to add something, to inform as well as make work. I spent months in the local library, city library, university archive, researching notable local people. Byker is an economically deprived ward and has been for a century, perhaps - local archives always list successful people as being from one of the wealthier neighbouring wards, or from the city as a whole. I think when most people first encountered the work, they saw something they genuinely didn't know about and which made them feel proud.

-There was a clear value system behind the work. The people selected were (to the greatest extent that it is possible when relying on history books that other people have written) from diverse backgrounds. There was a good mix of age, gender, class, area of interest. The man who invented reinforced concrete is on there. So is the woman who sang Sound of the Underground on Top of the Pops. Neither are interests of mine, but they're interesting to someone. Alongside them are people who changed how I feel about my own work just by reading about them.

-I was worried about creating an artwork that would just be inserted into people's lives, however well-meaning. Central to that was the idea that it might seem 'alien'. My thought was that if kids living in the area understood how it was made, then it wouldn't seem like a threat - they would identify with it. I used some of the budget to buy some graphic design equipment, and I mean proper stuff, not just something cheap for a weekend workshop. I solicited donations of second-hand laptops from friends with office jobs, installed the open-source graphic design packages that I use on them, and bought a couple of Wacom tablets. I ran a workshop for volunteers at a local library, teaching them how to use the equipment for their own purposes and so that it would be permanently locally-accessible. Then I ran a couple of weekend workshops for kids and teenagers, where we drew and designed together, they learned how to use the equipment and I could generally just talk with them and hang out.

-Running the workshops was a good excuse to wander up and down the high street, speaking to people who run its shops and cafes. I gave them posters to put in the window, invited them to let young people they were in contact with know. I accosted teenagers in the street, gave them posters and invited them personally to come take part. The proprietress of the Singin' Hinny cafe held up the poster and forcibly instructed every young person in the place, including her own daughter, to come to my workshop the next day. It was great.

The whole process just contained so many lessons, and some of the greatest parts of it were experienced by me - meeting and talking to amazing people from the area and the city as a whole. An exhaustive list of lessons - successes and failures - would need a lot more than a blog post. But I wanted to note down a few highlights, in case they were of interest to anyone else, and so that I always remember them too.

Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen politely puts up with my illustration skills

Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen politely puts up with my illustration skills

Poster in fruit and veg shop

Poster in fruit and veg shop

Poster in hospice charity shop

Poster in hospice charity shop

The youngest workshop participants (I think)

The youngest workshop participants (I think)

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