Scrutiny Of The Edgelands — Introducing: The Expanded City


Writer and artist Lauren Velvick has recently been commissioned to work on The Expanded City project within her hometown of Preston. But what has it taught her about the forgotten edgelands at the borders of rural and urban spaces?

The conversation around how we, as artists and cultural workers, can respond pragmatically and fruitfully to the continuing austerity visited on our towns and cities — and the increasing privatisation of vital services and industries — is becoming more urgent by the day. In introducing The Expanded City project, based in my hometown of Preston, Lancashire, it is impossible not to consider the latest spate of regional museum closures and threats of closure.

Within this climate, it seems even more surprising that Preston City Council would be scrupulous in seeking to ensure cultural provision with the City Deal scheme, which aims to construct and implement improved infrastructure, as well as new housing and “employment areas”. Yet, this is exactly what has happened, with the Preston-based arts organisation In Certain Places having been invited to respond to the scheme, in turn commissioning five artists, along with myself in the role of writer.

“Preston as an urban centre is hedged by the rural”

In Certain Places have previously focussed on “the city” in terms of the central, urban experience, and have had to reorient towards the hinterlands for The Expanded City. Preston as an urban centre is hedged by the rural, and envelops estates and suburbs that have cultivated individual identities through a combination of class, cultural and environmental delineations. As a one-time industrial hub and administrative centre, the architecture of central Preston combines the grand civic styles favoured by 19th century philanthropists, alongside the swooping concrete of 1960s utopian brutalism, and 1990s utilitarian breeze-block shop units; each in their own way designed for the use and/or edification of the people.

From this central point, it is not particularly easy to reach the edgelands without a car, and this basic infrastructural need is a significant concern for three of the commissioned artists, Gavin Renshaw, and artist duo Ian Nesbitt and Ruth Levene. Renshaw has photographed Preston from various points around the periphery of the city, sometimes following the route of the Guild Wheel, a 21 mile cycle path that serves as a legacy for the 2012 Guild celebrations – Preston being the only place that continues to celebrate this civic occasion dating from the rule of Henry VIII – producing images that constitute a decontextualised portrait of the city, often appearing to be ahistorical and timeless. In one image, primeval forests encroach upon the Deepdale Stadium, in an illusion created by Moor Park, which was once a moor on the edge of the growing town.

“Artist Ian Nesbitt has explored the pilgrimage as a vernacular route or ‘rogue network’”

To Renshaw, the mode by which he conducts this research is incidental, but by recording his routes and discovering first-hand the need for better pathways out of the city centre, this project lends itself to advocacy for improved cycling infrastructure.

Nesbitt and Levene have also traversed the circumference of Preston, but by other means than cycling. Prior to their involvement with The Expanded City, the two artists had completed a walk around the official boundary of their home-city of Sheffield, and had proposed to recreate this work in Preston. In previous artwork, Nesbitt has explored the pilgrimage as a vernacular route or “rogue network”, and the boundary walks can also be considered in these terms, with both artists sharing an interest in the differences and relationships between systems built in the service of human industry, and those that are formed by social interaction or the natural world.

“The continual redevelopment of city centres is familiar to anybody that lives in or near to one”

The continual redevelopment of city centres is familiar to anybody that lives in or near to one, but redevelopment on the edges of cities is less examined and rarely questioned. An important part of The Expanded City project is to develop an understanding of the experience of city-dwellers at the limits of what can be considered as city. Towards this end, commissioned artist Olivia Keith (pictured) has been conducting active research in the areas earmarked for development, focussing on the cultural importance of naming.

For Keith, the motif of the bridge is an important point of reference, appropriated due to their proximity to the waterways and thoroughfares of a place, and as such often pointing to earlier configurations of inhabitance and movement. In order to facilitate her conversations with passers-by, Keith has developed a framework, whereby each of her days spent on site results in a large-scale multimedia landscape drawing, which in turn acts as a point of conversation, making Keith conspicuous within her chosen environment. She has described how it is important to communicate openness, but not to actually initiate conversation, and this self-imposed constraint is one of the ways in which Keith’s ongoing project differs from familiar forms of socially engaged memory collecting. Any knowledge that is gained during these days spent drawing outdoors is offered consciously and deliberately, constituting a gathering of the information that people choose to go out of their way to share with strangers, or that is too precious to keep to oneself.

“The City Deal is a long-term project, and there are, as yet, few visible signs of it”

The City Deal is a long-term project, and there are, as yet, few visible signs of it, meaning that our responses have necessarily taken the form of conjecture. In a symposium organised by In Certain Places earlier in 2016, this sense of flux and in-between-ness was centred, with presentations from urban designer Carolina Caicedo and economist Paul Swinney, both of whom make work about the constantly changing nature of cities, and how this can be directed or understood.

Caicedo’s work within her organisation The Decorators relies on an understanding of the constitution of individual communities, whereas Swinney’s work as an economist uses quantitative measurement of demographics, representing two modes of knowledge that are often placed in opposition with one another, but that are equally necessary.

“It is our current situation that makes the kind of scrutiny afforded by The Expanded City project so important”

And yet, even with careful research, design that collaborates with the community, and comprehensive data any structure can be misused and any plan subverted, and it is this potential for the unexpected that interests the final commissioned artist, Emily Speed. The criteria insisted upon by Preston City Council, that alongside housing and employment, spaces for leisure, culture and play should be provided within the City Deal, is perhaps the most difficult to design and implement.

This disparity between intention and function has also emerged as a central concern in my own research, having observed the half-developed wastelands to the North East of Preston being utilised by adolescents, presumably in search of the kind of privacy that a small city centre can’t provide, but the edgelands can. It is difficult at the moment to imagine how places like Preston will look in a decade or so into the future, when our political and social landscape is so precarious and volatile in the present. However, it is our current situation that makes the kind of scrutiny afforded by The Expanded City project so important.

Lauren Velvick

Learn more at The Expanded City Publication Launch at Ham and Jam cafe, between 12 and 3pm (drop-in) on Friday 18 November 2016 (FREE entry) — an informal afternoon of tea, cake, artwork and conversations about The Expanded City, as well as a chance to collect a free publication which documents the first 12 months of the project.

The Expanded City is a three-year programme of artworks and events designed to generate debate about the City Deal – a national scheme, which aims to address strategic transport, environmental, community and cultural infrastructure challenges. In Certain Places have been working with artists Olivia KeithGavin RenshawIan Nesbitt and Ruth LeveneEmily Speed and writer Lauren Velvick to examine the existing characteristics and future plans for places within the City Deal areas. There will be an exhibition of artwork and the artists will available throughout the day to talk about their research and discuss aspects of the City Deal scheme.

Image: drawing by Olivia Keith (detail), courtesy the artist

Posted on 14/11/2016 by thedoublenegative