A bakery may not be the quietest place for a workshop, but it has that factory-like feeling that stimulates conversation and productivity. Plus it sets the perfect scene for a discussion on public art: at Homebaked in Liverpool, the act of breadmaking becomes a metaphor for resilience and the importance of art in everybody’s life.
Participants from across the UK came together to discuss strategies of public art and learn from the experience of two art projects that have used bread making as a response to urban development. The host, Homebaked Cooperative in Anfield, Liverpool, is a community art project initiated by artist Jeanne van Heeswijk for the 2010 Liverpool Biennial and now a ‘resisting’ community bakery. The guest project is Amy Franceschini’s Flatbread Society, an intervention in Oslo’s port new housing development involving a cultivated area and a community oven and where the baking of flatbread, a bread shared accross Arabian, Mediterranean and Asian cultures, is the catalyst for literally flattening cultural disparities and initiating new communities.
Homebaked is a living, paradigmatic example of what can be achieved long-term for a community art project. Its genesis and development provides a few answers for the questions raised by the group of artists, commissioners, curators, cultural organisers attending the workshop: How art can provoke an impact in the public realm? What is the legacy of community art? How can utopian ideas be turned into practice? What is the relation between commissioner – artists – community?
As we hear from Paul, one of the commissioners of the project, the history of Homebaked is strictly connected with the urban regeneration of Anfield, an area facing the challenge of becoming deserted. While people were ‘forced’ to move out of their home into more valuable properties and metal anti-squatting window protection had taken over entire streets, they were looking for public art commissions that were imaginative and able to re-shape the community, not new monuments a la Gormley.
The consultation with the resisting residents centered on ideas for ‘an ideal home’ but soon many shared the vision of a community bakery in the place of the abandoned one: they started making and offering bread and the idea spread locally. But it was the framework of the Liverpool Biennial and the press associated with it that gave the project an edge and popularity that some community art projects never reach; it has helped to attract the expertise of many volunteers that over the past four years have transformed what was supposed to be a temporary intervention into a self-sufficient business.
Anfield is still a semi-deserted area: some new houses have been built in the place of the old ones but there is still much wasteland and we walk in a fenced empty field where a local artist recounts growing up. Homebaked struggles with a David-Goliath relation with the council, but has become an important focus point for the locals having gained the right to not be demolished like most of the surrounding area. One of the bakers-artists-activists Jess recounts how –
‘It has taken a lot of good hearts to get to this point’
Jeanne van Heeswijk feels like a ghost in the room, she is an invisible presence. The artist’s own legacy has overcome her – she stepped out of the project as soon as local people started to take ownership. Still, it is important to hear the artist’s perspective: what is the artist view behind participatory art? What is it that makes them want to work with a community?
Amy Franceschini’s curriculum of ‘farming based projects’ seems to have lead her naturally to Flatbread Society (2012): a Soil Kitchen (2011), a gardening project in Philadelphia main square (Victory Gardens, 2007), and a human-powered horse in the Italian countryside (This is Not a Trojan Horse, 2010). These projects all still exist somehow as invisible sculptures: immaterial, reclaimed spaces for reflection, discussion and active citizenship. As Amy declares, it was the invisible monument of free speech in Berkley (Mark Brest Van Kempen‘s Column of Earth and Air, 1989) that, at the beginning of her career, helped her define what sort of art she was about to make. Certainly Flatbread Society is also about providing a free, conceptual space for social mobilization: a project around sustainable food in an area previously unpopulated and in the process of becoming the new housing development around Oslo’s port.
While Amy recounts her fascination for rural archaic seed containers and for bakehouses (they were ‘like churches’ in the rural Norway), the origin of her project unfolds: she attempts to initiate something that will last longer than an ephemeral intervention and that would somehow grow in parallel with the new community that was about to be created. Her emphasis is on the importance of the historical precedents and on the slowness that characterises the project – the objective is to establish a permanent bakehouse in Bjørvika after a five year research tour around Europe. In the hindsight of her experience she talks about seven pillars, or principles on which the project is based upon: the investigation of the soil, the physical space, the local economy, education and so on: it sounds like a thorough project plan and a role model for community art projects.
But before all of this practice has come what Amy calls the ‘exploratory period’, that fascinating and frightening moment in which an artist has been commissioned to do a work and has to start somehow. When she shows the drawing of a mobile tea pot mounted on a sort of DIY lo-fi hand cart, I suddenly understand what it is that marks the difference between socially-engaged art, and non-art social practice. I am reminded of the mythological ancient Greece figure of Diogenes, the naked man with a torch looking for ‘an honest man’. In Amy’s drawing I can see the vision behind the whole project and imagine nocturnal journeys in search of conversations on how to make a difference in the area. To go out in the city with a portable kettle and to talk with the people you meet is a spontaneous, organic way of making decisions; a natural way to planting ideas through conversation and let them grow into something that works for many.
When Flatbread Society becomes a fully-working community bakehouse with a growing field for replanting ancient grains and a space for public events, and when discussions and diverse bread-making start to take place, the artists may not be recognizable anymore – as in the Homebaked experience – but a drawing will still exist. It encapsulates artistic imagination and resists as an outstanding object of art. I think it is important that something like that drawing remains, because it reminds everybody involved that at the origin of it, there is still a visionary, utopian idea.
Someone in the room raises concerns about how such projects that are so linked to urban regeneration (or degeneration?) can maintain their integrity and not be instrumentalised by the commissioners. Director of Situations, Claire Doherty, tells us that projects like Flatbread Society and Homebaked develop like seeds, growing from an idea organically and slowly, under constant review process and negotiation. This is an art that is not about celebrating what the developers want, but about facilitating social activism: it is a long difficult process of negotiation with the commissioners and nobody knows what the end result would be. Without a picture or rendering, it requires a leap of faith which is not necessarily easy to take.
This Public Art (Now) workshop is not just an occasion for exchanging experiences, but an opportunity for cross-pollination. This is symbolically represented by a seed exchange with a donation by Amy Franceschini and Dr Mike Ambrose of a few samples of ancient grains – an encouragement for bakers to consider the social value and meaning of grains, especially those who have incredible histories but are now disappearing. With all the debate that arose during the presentations and the seed exchange, something as natural as making bread becomes a politically-charged exercise and yes – we have made bread too.
Slow Space and Bjørvika Utvikling
Slow Space is a programme of public artworks set to unfold in Bjørvika, Oslo’s former container port, through collective activity, annual events and interventions, often in close collaboration with existing organisations and artist-run initiatives across the city. The programme is commissioned by Bjørvika Utvikling(BU), the development company that provides a common platform for dialogue with authorities and organisations involved in the Bjørvika Development – a major site of regeneration on Oslo’s waterfront.
BU is dedicated to progressive forms of supporting the arts as part of the development including a programme of temporary commissions in 2009-10 entitled Common Lands and the establishment of Kunsthall Oslo, an independent exhibition space for contemporary art in the Opera Quarter providing a permanent resource for the exhibition and exploration of artworks. In 2010, Bjørvika Utvikling invited UK-based producers Situations to devise a new curatorial vision for the area – one that would challenge preconceptions about the forms and timespan of conventional public artworks. Claire Doherty, Director of Situations, proposed Slow Space – an unfolding series of events and permanent projects that would gather together artists, architects, planners and curators from all over the world in Oslo to help us think about alternative approaches to public time as well as public space. http://slowspace.no
Bjørvika Utvikling established the subsidiary Bjørvika Infrastruktur, who is responsible for the construction of the commons, water-font promenade and technical infrastructure in the new city district in Oslo.