Barking Town Centre Artscape
Location: London Borough of Barking and Dagenham, UK
Artists: Clare Brew, Michael Cousin, Raphael Daden, Dale Devereux Barker, muf architecture/ art, Jill Randall and Alan Birch, Tony Stallard, Alison Unsworth, Joost van Santen, Walter Jack Studio, Simon Watkinson, Tom Wilkinson
London Borough of Barking and Dagenham (LBBD) has commissioned artists to create artworks for the centre of Barking as part of the regeneration of the town. This regeneration forms part of the development of Thames Gateway and also anticipates the staging of the 2012 Olympics in East London.
Barking Town Centre Artscape comprises a range of public art projects, including: temporary artworks – such as street paintings by Alison Unsworth; artworks that are integral to the fabric of the town – for example an underpass by Raphael Daden and lighting interventions by Tony Stallard; and ‘stand-alone’ sculptures – e.g. a lighting tower by Joost van Santen and a sculpture by Simon Watkinson. muf has been engaged to work on the new town square, creating temporary hoardings and contributing to its design in collaboration with lighting designer Tom Dixon and others.
Urban design consultancy Burns + Nice has advised on the use of materials and finishes in the wider regeneration of the town, and artists commissioned to create permanent artworks have been required to follow their guidelines, which are known as the Barking Code.
Barking Town Centre Artscape is being added to as finances permit. Funds are raised on an ongoing basis through Section 106 Agreements with private developers (in which local authorities secure a financial or other contribution to the local area) during negotiations for successive transport and housing schemes. Other key sources of funding include the former Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, London Thames Gateway Riverside Partnership and London Thames Gateway Urban Development Corporation. The current budget stands at £1.3million.
This study looks at the background to Barking Town Centre Artscape and at the approaches LBBD has taken. Two of the commissions are featured in more detail.
Barking Town Centre Artscape was developed as a result of the success of A13 Artscape, a public art scheme with a budget of £11 million. Conceived in 1996 and completed in 2005, A13 Artscape intertwines with the A13 as it runs through Barking to Dagenham and comprises extensive landscaping, planting and lighting projects, sculptures and artist-designed underpasses. It was initiated by Jeremy Grint, Head of Spatial Regeneration at LBBD, who appointed independent consultants Geoff Wood (Working pArts) and Hazel Colquohoun to develop the artistic and funding strategies.
In 1997, the council allocated £300,000 from the A13 Artscape budget and detailed proposals were drawn up for a town centre regeneration scheme that included public art as an integral component. A competition was staged and a team comprising an artist, architect, developer and project manager was appointed. After some months, they hit difficulties in terms of agreeing approaches. The scheme also suffered when the council’s planning priorities shifted. As a final blow, Arts Council England withdrew some of its funding following changes in personnel and its review of the project.
A13 Artscape was meanwhile being completed, and it was launched in February 2005. Peter Watson at LBBD has been involved in A13 Artscape from the beginning, firstly as Project Engineer and later as Project Manager. In 2001, Tracey McNulty was appointed Group Manager Arts Programme and Development to work alongside him on both A13 Artscape and Barking Town Centre Artscape. Tracey McNulty has also managed the community aspects of the projects, in collaboration with other council departments.
The second proposal
In early 2005, Jeremy Grint led a second attempt to gain support for a town centre public art scheme, and Tracey McNulty drew up a new proposal, supported by his team, again as part of extensive regeneration plans. Jeremy Grint held on to the idea of including public art in plans for the town because he values it in a number of ways. He says: ‘much of the borough’s housing is very similar and art is a means of helping address that homogeneity’. He also ‘likes to involve people in regeneration activity – to get them to rethink the place’, and feels that artists can help stir people’s imaginations. Community involvement through art projects can also ‘help people have a positive relationship to upheaval and change’.
An initial sum of £300,000 for Barking Town Centre Artscape came from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. It was a relatively small amount of money and had to be allocated in just three months. The decision was therefore made to devise and manage the project in-house, as this would be much cheaper than working with an independent consultant and also more feasible in the time. This was a realistic option because of the skills and awareness that had been developed within the council due to A13 Artscape: as Tracey McNulty says ‘A13 gave us the opportunity to capacity build at the council’.
The council recognised a number of advantages to this in-house approach. In practical terms, it would help promote good cross-departmental working and streamline the commissioning and design processes. In cultural terms, an emphasis on ‘on the ground’ working and local knowledge would focus decisions and also help to maximise community involvement and acceptance.
The second public art scheme proposal succeeded, and Tracey McNulty believes that its more local, in-house approach helped gain the confidence of councillors, funders and community partners.
The experience of working on A13 Artscape informed other aspects of how LBBD has undertaken Barking Town Centre Artscape, too.LBBD had to work hard to gain local acceptance of A13 Artscape. Channels of communication were opened up:literature was produced; a named person was responsible for all contact with the public; a ‘your questions answered’ section was developed on LBBD’s website. Officers also took every opportunity to promote the project at local and regional events. Tracey McNulty explains: ‘to begin with, it felt like nobody knew or cared about A13 and it’s now accepted because of the council’s involvement in promoting, owning and championing the work.’ This confirmed her belief that ‘it takes more than the creation of a project to embed it in the local psyche’. From the outset therefore, the Barking Town Centre Artscape scheme has involved high levels of different kinds of communication with local communities.
A shift in working politics occurred after A13 Artscape, too. In the first scheme, artists were often perceived as the ‘top dogs’, and this tended to suggest that whatever they proposed would be championed without discussion or revision. This sometimes gave rise to difficulties and conflict, and may even have limited potential at times. Tracey McNulty decided that artists in Barking Town Centre Artscape would participate in meetings as equals to representatives from the council and other professionals, including lighting engineers, lighting designers, structural engineers, civil engineers, highways and traffic managers. As a consequence, each player ‘has had input in the design process early on’ (Tracey McNulty).
Does a public art project that’s got its nose so close to the ground retain its daring and creativity, however? Geoff Wood feels that what he brought to A13 Artscape as an independent consultant has been lost: ‘LBBD has retreated into an air of modesty of ambition that was all too evident when we got there’. Tracey McNulty counters with the view that: ‘what makes a project work is the understanding of context – it means that the art becomes part of an historic fabric rather than a commodity’.
An event during St Valentine’s weekend in 2005 represented a point of transition from one scheme to another. As part of the A13 Artscape scheme, Plugfish was commissioned to curate Love and Light, a trail of video projections by five artists across Barking town centre. The artworks – some of which featured local people – illuminated and animated key landmarks, including a bandstand, the magistrates’ court, the town hall, the abbey, and other prominent buildings.
The public’s response to Love and Light was positive and the experience informed LBBD’s approach to Barking Town Centre Artscape in several ways.
Focus on commissions by Raphael Daden and Simon Watkinson
An advertisement was placed in a-n Magazine in October 2005 that asked for expressions of interest and documentation of previous projects. More than 100 applications were received and 30 artists were long-listed. Tracey McNulty wrote the brief in November 2004. This described the scope of the scheme and indicated possible locations for projects.
The long-listed artists were sent the brief and invited to visit Barking and to submit proposals for sites of their choosing (which were to include drawings, a written statement and outline costings). Each was paid a fee of £1,000. The proposals were received in November 2005 and by January 2006 nine artists had been commissioned to realise their ideas. This fast pace was dictated by the terms of the start-up funds from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.
Raphael Daden was attracted to the idea of working in Barking because he was aware of A13 Artscape (which LBBD mentioned in their advertisement) as being ‘high profile and good quality’. He says ‘I had worked in underpasses before and I am interested in working in that situation – light works well in them’ and so it follows that when he visited Barking, he gravitated towards an underpass at the intersection of the Northern Relief Road and Wakering Road: ‘the challenge is to do something different every time’.
Raphael Daden explains: ‘I photographed the site and got a feel for the place. I liked the urban chunks of concrete and the new flooring. It wasn’t grotty, it was a good space to go through.’ He was, however, conscious of the likelihood of vandalism: ‘the graffiti on my design drawings is there to represent reality’.
The written statement he submitted for his work, Light-Waves, reads: ‘When you enter the underpass a sensor will trigger your movement and pulses of light from both ends will follow you to the centre of the underpass, a second sensor will then trigger the centre light board and this will then create a dynamic pattern of moving light and colours.’ The design involves a schematic eye shape: ‘I wanted to have a sense of people being watched and being followed’.
Development and fabrication has mostly been smooth. The council has been efficient and Urbis Lighting, whom the council stipulated he should work with, has been helpful in finding practical solutions to issues such as maintenance and durability. Together, they have worked towards the realisation of the piece as nine separate panels, each 2m x 1.5m x 15mm and 5mm apart (to allow for expansion), with hinges and hydraulics (for maintenance). Importantly, Raphael Daden has been consulted in detail throughout: ‘Urbis wouldn’t do anything without my approval’.
He was happy to work with Burns + Nice’s Barking Code: ‘I’ve used the same stainless steel for the frontage of my panels that’s on the bollards they have installed at both ends of the underpass.’
The total budget of £200,000 includes the artist’s fee of £20,000, design, fabrication, the supply of new power units and installation of the artwork, and the upgrade of the site. Funding for this project was secured through a Section 106 Agreement with the developers of a nearby housing scheme.
Simon Watkinson, whose previous work has mostly taken the form of urban lighting schemes, was also commissioned to create a work. Like Raphael Daden, Simon Watkinson felt Barking Town Centre Artscape was an attractive proposition because of its connection with A13 Artscape. When he visited Barking, he was interested to learn about the Ice House, a nineteenth century building at the side of the river in part of the town undergoing redevelopment. He discovered that fields in the surrounding areas used to be deliberately flooded and local people were paid to harvest great blocks of ice and haul these to the Ice House, from where the ice was shipped and sold. Simon Watkinson decided to make a sculpture that commemorates this activity and he offered to evolve his work in a site of the council’s choosing, as he wanted considerations of site to relate to wider developments.
The Ice Harvest, as the work is called, comprises two perspex forms that resemble stacks of ice, which are lit from within. It will be situated about 400 metres from the Ice House, on part of the route that the ice harvesters took, and in a prominent position opposite a large park and at a junction where a road crosses the river.
The artist’s aim has been to create ‘a repository for a range of possible stories manifest through everyday objects’. Set within the perspex are ‘shoals’ of different types of keys, which allude to aspects of Barking’s history and, more generally, to ideas of absence and belonging: Saint Peter, holder of the keys to the gates of heaven within the Christian tradition, is Barking’s patron saint; there are jailors’ keys that allude to the fact that the prison reformer Elizabeth Fry lived in the town; the Ford car company has a factory in Barking and is represented by car keys; the keys also, for the artist, ‘suggest buildings and people that are not there’. Negative impressions in the perspex will depict local archaeological finds.
Simon Watkinson and LBBD agreed that the site for the sculpture should be developed to create a small public space. They also decided that The Ice Harvest should be raised off the ground on a plinth. Site visits during the period November 2005 to February 2006 by the artist, LBBD and Burns + Nice were very amicable. Simon Watkinson was ‘quite relaxed about the materials in Burns + Nice’s Barking Code' and he feels the space ‘designed itself’ around drainage and access needs: ‘it’s a gridded space that looks like it’s been extruded out of the pavement’. The artist is also very pleased with Burns + Nice’s designs for some wooden palette-like benches which are sympathetic to the concept of his artwork.
The fabrication of the sculpture is challenging because the blocks of acrylic are so large, and a fabricator has withdrawn its tender at a late stage of discussions. Simon Watkinson is philosophical about this: ‘LBBD is relaxed about the ups and downs because of their experience with A13. They know that one-offs don’t run along totally straight lines.’
It is surprising to find a lighting artist creating an artwork that takes the form of a quite traditional public sculpture: it is commemorative, and it sits on a plinth in a prominent, developed space. The artist says: ‘It was driven by the nature of the concept. The whole thing will glow and create ambient light on the surrounding buildings. It will transform more than simply itself.’
The total budget for The Ice Harvest has yet to be confirmed due to delays in the tendering process. It is anticipated that funding for this project will also be secured through a Section 106 Agreement.
Putting the 'public' in 'Public Art'
Throughout the discussions for this case study, LBBD referred frequently to their relationship, as public art commissioners, to local communities – and to the relationship of local communities to the public art they have commissioned. These relationships have been developed in a number of ways and the following section seeks to outline the approaches they have taken to develop the public as an art audience.
Prior to A13 Artscape and Barking Town Centre Artscape, there was little arts activity in Barking; the theatre was closed for a long time, there are no art galleries or concert halls, and the council had previously commissioned public art rather sporadically. Both Artscape schemes included events and temporary projects that were designed to make the public receptive to the idea of experiencing the different artforms in Barking, and, as Geoff Wood puts it, ‘to see themselves as an audience of a wide range of work’.
A series of events and temporary projects and exhibitions have taken place which were designed to ‘make a splash’ and involve the wider public in the contemporary visual arts. Love and Light, a weekend of light projections on prominent buildings, took place in February 2005 (see also ‘Public consultations’, below). Between January 05 and February 2006, Michael Cousins filmed people talking about Barking’s history and collected images from local people’s photograph albums: the resulting exhibition continues to be shown in community venues (see also ‘Community projects’).
Throughout 2005, Alison Unsworth researched designs found within Barking and Dagenham interiors and painted patterns from these onto paving and seating and other roadside surfaces. muf created building site hoardings for the town square during spring and summer 2005: these will remain on display until the buildings are completed (see also ‘Community projects’).
Tracey McNulty describes community projects as being important in terms of local people ‘acquiring knowledge and developing expectations.’
Her job includes working on a number of community and arts infrastructure projects within Barking and Dagenham, and her work in connection with Barking Town Centre Artscape can therefore sometimes mesh with other projects she manages in helpful ways. The Broadway, a new performing arts centre, opened in September 2004, and LBBD determined that the building should have a lighting feature on the façade. Reflecting Barking Town Centre Artscape’s emphasis on lighting, it now forms part of the new cultural trail. The local dance, drama, arts and faith groups that have participated in projects at The Broadway have been keen to take part in Artscape activities too. This relationship between projects helps in terms of local acceptance of Barking Town Centre Artscape and also serves to raise awareness of ‘the contribution of the arts to physical and social regeneration’.
Michael Cousin undertook research with the local studies society and worked with Age Concern, church members and a local preservation society. He interviewed local residents individually or in the company of friends and family, meeting them at home or in community centres or other venues. Participants told stories about Barking to camera and also contributed photographs. The resulting exhibition was first shown at The Broadway theatre during the launch of Barking Town Centre Artscape in January 2006. It is now available on request and continues to tour to venues such as churches, pubs and meeting places. Between these showings, the exhibition is on display at a prominent community church hall.
muf created the hoardings for the town square with local students at Barking College School of Performing Arts, who are based at The Broadway and older people from local community groups, including the Sunrise Centre and Age Concern. There were visits to Tate Modern in which the participants ‘were encouraged to look at how artists represent familiar scenes and how they make what is familiar new and fresh’ (Tracey McNulty). There were also workshops in photography and composition. Finally, a drama session took place in the town square and photographs of this were enlarged to create the hoardings. The images muf created in this way are dramatic and surreal, and encourage passers-by to look twice.
Whereas A13 Artscape is aesthetically and conceptually ambitious, there is an emphasis on accessibility in the Barking Town Centre Artscape scheme. Jeremy Grint says: ‘The town centre stuff is different. It’s not as hard to understand. It’s on a different scale. I think you can have both approaches.’
Jeremy Grint’s hope is that Barking will be ‘somewhere that art is taken seriously.’ In this respect, the accessible nature of Barking Town Centre Artscape will hopefully attune local communities to public art and help towards a greater appreciation of A13 Artscape. Other differences between the two schemes would seem to complement each other very helpfully, too: the town centre scheme is more human-scale and intimate, and experienced (generally) as a pedestrian; the road scheme is more imposing, and experienced (generally) from a distance and as a motorist.
Public accountability and local knowledge
Colleagues at LBBD have approached their work on Barking Town Centre Artscape as public servants, and there is a strong sense of public duty. They are conscious of being accountable: they are answerable to locally elected representatives, they give press interviews, and they make presentations to forums and school programmes. More generally, they have a much longer-term involvement with the locality than an independent consultant would have. This accountability, combined with in-depth local knowledge, empowers them to make quite independent decisions about their work, Tracey McNulty argues.
Tracey McNulty presented a selection of the artists’ proposals for Barking Town Centre Artscape to representatives from the Greater London Authority, Arts Council England and other LBBD departments, but the outcome was inconclusive. In order to progress the project, she took a curatorial overview of the proposals and decided to take a ‘themed approach that would make geographic connections and address the objectives of the scheme’. She then put forward her choice of commissions to LBBD managers, local councillors, a residents association, local churches, town centre managers, regeneration stakeholder steering groups, developers of local housing schemes, education advisers, and other groups and individuals. The discussion and approval of her selection proceeded quite smoothly, she reports.
Art world specialists from funding bodies can present particular difficulties on selection panels, Tracey McNulty explains: ‘they can sometimes come with their own agendas and try to fit the project to a set of objectives which don’t necessarily fit with ours, or, on occasion, they don’t turn up, because they are so busy.’ Due to limited time it was essential to ‘trust herself’ and base her decisions on the local knowledge she has accrued: ‘a sensitivity to process is vested in us now: it’s part of a sense of confidence in ourselves as a team’.
Due to the need to allocate the project’s start-up funds within three months, little public consultation was possible with regards to the shaping of the scheme as a whole and the selection of artists. Since then, however, LBBD has involved local people extensively.
The LBBD arts team presented all projects for discussion to a wide range of community groups, and these consultations have informed the final development of the artists’ initial designs, helping to refine and consolidate them. The arts team presented projects to: Ab Phab Youth Club, Barking and Dagenham Ethnic Minority Partnership Agency, Barking Arts Society, Barking Historical Society, Barking Photographic Society, Baseline Youth Club, community wardens and landlord services, Dagenham Camera Club, Heritage and Library services, the LEA’s inspection services, LBBD Faith Forum, LBBD Heritage Forum, LBBD Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transexual Forum, LBBD Local Studies Centre, residents’ and ward associations, St Margaret’s Youth Club, and schools.
Love and Light (February 2005) had a big impact on LBBD thinking, serving as both public event and informal consultation exercise. Tracey McNulty lists what they learnt from it: ‘Love and Light opened up the notion of a cultural path from the station to the riverside’; ‘it brought a focus to distinctive buildings and the need to attract attention to them’; ‘it helped focus what people saw as interesting or important – i.e. the historic buildings and their use’; ‘it demonstrated that light was a key tool in getting people to look up and see what was there differently’. LBBD then devised approaches and selected commissions on the basis on this information: a lighting scheme and other light works extend across this ‘cultural path’; installations are sited at the edges of the entry-points to town centre destinations; temporary artworks and community projects continue to build on the public’s growing appreciation of the town’s heritage.
During May 2005, all of the selected project proposals were exhibited in a marquee in Abbey Green (a park in the town centre) as part of Barking Festival. The artists and the LBBD arts team had face-to-face discussions with the public about the artworks, and there was a comments book and a questionnaire. There was also a Barking Town Centre Artscape brochure that people could take away and respond to later. This exercise was repeated at the Dagenham Town Show in July 2005. In addition to this, local newspapers conducted a vox pop in the town centre, with very positive results.
While initial time pressures meant that some key decisions had to be made without consultation with the public, LBBD went on to engage with local communities to an impressive extent. Tracey McNulty explains that their approach was ‘developmental rather than contained’: even once artists and artworks were commissioned, everyone remained flexible and responsive to local considerations.
Community involvement in the development of artworks
The brief to artists stipulated that 'opportunities for community engagement and consultation should be exploited, where appropriate', and in six of the fifteen commissions the community was involved in the creative process.
Between November 2004 and May 2005 – the project development phase – six artists presented their proposals to community groups for discussion and led design workshops, and involved local people in the design, creation and presentation of projects. The list of organisations that took part is impressive: Ab Phab Youth Club, Abbey Sports Centre, Age Concern, Asian Women’s Centre, Barking Creekmouth Preservation Society, Barking and Dagenham Youth Dance, Barking College, Barking Historical Society, Barking Photographic Society, the Environment Agency, LBBD Faith Forum, LBBD Heritage Forum, residents’ and ward associations, St. Margaret’s Parish, sixth form colleges, and the Sunrise Centre (a centre for older people).
To briefly take a few examples: a second, permanent project by muf has been developed with college groups and older people; schools workshops about the river as an environment were run in association with the redesign of a seating area at Mill Pool by Jill Randall and Alan Birch; Dale Devereux Barker conducted workshops at secondary schools and youth clubs, and the resulting paintings and drawings influenced his designs for enamel panels that form a trail through the town centre.
However, the two projects featured in this study reveal that LBBD has been flexible in terms of approach and responsive to the views of artists.
Engaging the community
The location for Simon Watkinson’s The Ice Harvest is described in the brief as being ‘sensitive’, as it is next to one of the UK’s twenty most deprived wards. ‘Proposed works must demonstrate a considered sensitivity and appreciation for location … and works [should] entail full community engagement and involvement’ (project brief).
Simon Watkinson’s artwork is certainly responsive to local history and appreciative of location. Yet while he did spend time talking to members of the public when all the proposals were exhibited in the marquee, his involvement with the community has been deliberately arm’s-length. He explains, ‘I am interested in the narrative of the crowd, but not necessarily in the narrative of the individual. What I’m looking for is the large group of people who share a space and a time rather than the individual.’ Over successive projects, he has taken a variety of approaches, and at first he worked closely with community groups. This was not satisfactory, however: ‘I’m not an artist who seeks to take directly from the community. At the same time, I’m interested in the community. But it’s not the kind of dialogue you have in a workshop setting that I’m interested in.’
For Raphael Daden, the community is engaged in Light-Waves, his lighting project for an underpass, because it is interactive: ‘people become part of it in its interactivity’. The brief describes the underpass as being a ‘main route for young people, adults and commuters’ and the artist explains that he did not design his artwork in relation to those groups – rather, it was the council that identified his work as suitable.
Tracey McNulty says that it is a matter of what is popular with the public, and she has noticed that ‘artist-owned projects tend to go down well with people, especially works that are about the situation or are an homage to something historic.’ She says, ‘I’m interested when artists’ proposals go down well at presentations to public groups – when the artist, as a creative individual, is convincing in their argument and people are confident in the scheme as a result. ’
Rather than prescribing one approach for the whole scheme, she prefers a combined approach, and some projects have extensive community involvement and others have much less. Sometimes this lower level of involvement has been a deliberate choice; at other times it has been due to lack of funds or limitations of time.
Community consultation is often cited as a way of gaining public acceptance of public art schemes. Tracey McNulty believes that it is perhaps even more crucial to have ‘a range of opportunities on offer for people to take part in the arts. That’s why the borough’s arts development programme is so vital. Our community programme has developed and intensified and because of this the public are now comfortable with the inclusion of the arts in the development of the public realm’.
© Angela Kingston, 2006