with Jo Thomas and Jack Brown
SJ: What do you define as public realm?
JB: I think maybe, people who work collaboratively with non-artists/members of the public, people who make things that are shown in public spaces, and also a lot of artists we have spoken to have practices that incorporate producing or supporting networks for artists or non-artists…
SJ: When my practice started I wouldn’t say it was in the public realm but I was never really interesting in gallery spaces…
I started off more on the technology side of things, so I did a Masters in Multimedia Arts and was working in architecture, creating responsive spaces, doing very interactive work, working for festivals… but then that got stuck in a rut, in the sense that you can get stuck in the technology, I think, you have to be very careful… so I was doing festivals, working for Leeds College of Art teaching Visual Communications. I did a couple of commissions – one in a hospital researching the effects of sound on the human body, the other one was, I was asked by FACT to run their research programme and Wellcome Trust projects around that area, so that ran for about three or four years.
That was predominantly in hospitals, working in non-gallery spaces, so these were clinical spaces. I ran a sort of education and research programme, making my own work and commissioning other artists, working with scientists, the hospitals, the doctors, the children. And the children were very much co-producing the work as well, and what happens in public spaces is that if the people are engaged it’s very obvious, they have ownerships, people accept it and it has a history within that space. But that was never my background, I hadn’t training in say ‘public engagement’ at that point...then I was asked by Laura Sillars who was head of programme at FACT ‘what would I do if I was to do a commission in north Liverpool?’ because I was from that area… similarly to Jayne ( Jayne Lawless ), Jayne and I have a very similar narrative – Because I was from North Liverpool, from a housing estate I had always gone away, you know, as a kid you always wanted to go somewhere else, you know ‘why would I want to come back and work here, because it’s too difficult, it would be very, very difficult to embrace that, that conflict.’ So I wasn’t sure if I wanted to work in North Liverpool and I had no idea, I mean how can you actually work in these environments that are completely decimated…. particularly North Liverpool and Anfield you would have lots of artists going in; commissioned to work in temporary ways and you know, I was not particularly sure that was the best way to work.
I didn’t know any good models, so I was like, I’m not going to go in there and make a complete disaster, potentially in your own backyard! In front of people that could be your parents! I think if you are away somewhere you can let that go and you can experiment.
JB: because you’ve got a bit of distance haven’t you...
SJ: I think you have to have good models, I did a residency over in Shatana in Jordan, and basically they just took over a village ( to make artworks ) then left and all the artworks got stolen because there was no way of really embedding any of the work. The only work that stayed (that wasn’t stolen) was my work and that’s because I stayed with the family and sat and chatted with them for two week. The work wasn’t related to that but it was outside their door so they looked after it.
That was very stark moment for me, it was like ‘right OK’ it felt like these people (the artists) don’t know what they are doing, and I’m here and I’m not sure what I’m doing here with this but it doesn’t feel quite right.
I think from personal experience it’s important to understand that these things are really tricky. I’ve worked in more clinical environments, they have their own issues, but you know, you know who to deal with, there are frameworks you work within.
JB – and I presume it’s a lot more controlled, because you can’t just walk into it…
SJ: – Anyway I’ve digressed slightly, So I wasn’t sure what was good practice? You know you can read about it, but I wasn’t convinced, so a PHD scholarship came up with the Liverpool Biennial. So I applied for that and got that which started in 2009 and I’d worked with FACT and I loved FACT, but I thought well the Biennial was the one who could push its way through the public realm, and have the leverage to do so, I’m sure other people may not agree with me but that was my perception of what was going on in the city at the time.
So, the beginning of 2010, Paul Kelly introduced me to, and maybe Jayne has mentioned this, Jeanne van Heeswijk. So I was the first person to take her round on a tour of Anfield, because my parents and my grandparents were from there. So the last five years I’ve been embedded researcher on that project, I’ve got the whole narrative across all of that. It was a master class in how to engage with a community. So I got an answer, to a degree, of how to work with a community. How I would apply that to my own work I still needed to work out. You know because every artist is different and every community is different. My work can be very quick, so this was a long commitment, in fact the longest commitment to anything I’d ever done! And it wasn’t even my work!
But fascinating to watch, to see how another artist who is seen to be top of her game, works in a community. And it’s not warm and cuddly, she is very strategic, works with community and organisations, thinks things through and it is quite political. Which I’ve rarely really come across, artists often make work about politics but never to be strategically political, I’m not says artists don’t do that but it’s very unusual
JB: Yeah, it’s normally more like a comment on it, maybe a banner or slogan...
SJ: Rather than actually engaging with it, the tussle of it and how do you navigate that to make change. So, as I say, I’ve been involved in that for the last five years. Initially it was observing, but you can’t not engage with that type of co-production process and seeing how the community shifted the power quite a lot in that project: to the fact that there is now a bakery, because that was never the plan.. And they ran it themselves which wasn’t part of the plan either…
JT: So was there an original plan?
SJ: No, the initial project was for young people to do housing, a housing competition. The bakery was opened as a very traditional open space so the public could engage with it (the housing project) because before that they were working in schools or community centres so nobody could see it. Initially it was just more of a drop in shop to learn about the housing project but everyone just kept on coming in asking ‘where’s your bread?, where’s your pies?, where’s your cakes, when are you opening?’
Projects go through different phases, they were trying to open up to the public, so you had adults coming in then, they were trying to engage the wider community and this point adults started coming in.
JB: That’s when you have to start talking to ‘real people’… it’s not just teenagers, but it’s like, OK these are people my age
SJ: Yeah, it’s a completely different dynamic, and they organised a bakery workshop because people where interested in the bakery. But by this point they had somebody ready to run the bakery, but there was conflict because the people who had been on the bakery course wanted to run it. It was long process. You know we are talking about people who can’t bake, people who had the best will in the world and wanted it to be a collectively run thing, but people couldn’t run a business, they were learning how to set up collectives, land trusts, cooperatives so there was all sorts of stuff going on. And then on top of that learning to bake, or not as the case maybe.
JB: Well the bread’s got to be alright hasn’t it!
SJ: Well actually the breads really good now, because one of the girls who lives locally has become the Master Baker. She lives in Anfield, she’s become the star baker, we learn how to make really good pork pies, I actually went off and did a master class on pork pie making and became the ‘Pie Ambassador’ the best title I’ve ever had!
So, while I was doing that I was learning how to do, or engage with, or observe this type of project.
JT: So, can I just ask, you were invited by the Biennial to be the researcher within the project?
SJ: I was doing a PHD project and I proposed to look at the Biennial’s public art commissions… then I met Jeanne van Heeswijk and I decided I wanted to follow that particular project. Because when I met her I thought, this artist is really interesting, very direct, no nonsense, looks you in the eye and you trusted that this person could do something interesting. When you are looking for people to work in communities I think you look for people with gravitas and how have got that resilience as well.
SJ: I have become one of the Directors of the Community Land Trust because I wanted to see the land trust phase through because we are going to the next phase of all housing next to it and I’ve become quite passionate about growing and we are going to be taking over a massive space just behind us.
JB: And that I presume is a load of demolished houses.
SJ: The ones at the side are demolished houses, or rather houses that will be demolished. The space next to them is an old recreational space called ‘the rec’. Lord Salisbury had a covenant on it so it can’t be built on.
So it’s gone from this project that was supposed to be about housing, tilted into a bakery because the community wanted that and it’s now trying to tilt back, but still have the symbolism of that bakery space and what it means to the community.
I’m, at the moment, setting up the training for them. We’ve had a couple of courses running which have been amazing. Its confidence building, they get a food safety certificate. They have a fantastic time because they come into this safe space, that is not college, they can bond and get a qualification. So we are trying to set up these systems and that’s where I see what I can do to help, because I like to do that, to see, so how can we set this up so it works across the community land trust, the bakery, the land behind (the rec) and have an educational strand that runs through it and is embedded in the community.
JB: OK, so you’re there really while you do you research and it’s a bonus that actually you are doing your research, so you are funded on it, so you can commit to it.
SJ: Actually my funding ended last year, so I’ve self-funding and stayed with the project… I want to set up some sort of school, and I suppose that’s a link to my practice, I like setting up systems, I like things being very system based. And how do you do that in real terms? How do you set something up that keeps running, stays sustainable?
JT: So, two things really. Where do you see yourself going with these sorts of projects? And are there any other projects in Liverpool that sort of catch your eye as being really interesting?
SJ: Well, I’ve set up my own company called ‘Chef Tech’ which is to do with community housing, health, ecology, food, technology. I’ve just started that up, because I want to set up projects that can be sustainable, so as a company I’m not always looking for arts funding. So looking at the model of Home Baked, how do you do that but in my ‘area’ if that makes sense.
There is always a conflict in that I want to do something that’s really sustainable but then my own practice is quite ephemeral. So how do I do both, or how do I set up something that allows me to do both.
And the other project I’ve been working on is ‘superforager’ which was a very fickle thing really, I’m interested in foraging, I’ve become very passionate about food and growing. I started to look at how you could do that (foraging) with technology. So I went to a hackathon to do with mapping, another one to do with wearable technologies…
JB: Where were they?
SJ: They were in Manchester.
SJ: Yeah, so we presented some of those ideas back and we came up with this ‘superforager’ project. And because I was sort of interested in this idea of navigating, we came up with a wearable belt and hand piece that actually connects people together what they are foraging and directs them to food. It was very whimsical but people really loved it. I was working with a couple of artists on this, got a grant and we were asked to go over to Belgium to do this, so we did, we got a prototype and when foraging in a park, the Royal Belgium Park….. hops, there were hops everywhere, so I made some food out of the hops and the oregon berries and lime leaves, people from down the road who had their own allotment can to join us. We were only there for a week but we did quite a lot, we cooked and had a nice event at the end. And we’ve got this prototype at the end of it to develop more in the future.
So sometimes these ephemeral things you do become important, because they start to draw attention to certain things, and this just seemed to draw attention to foraging, technology and food systems. I am interested in the wider impact of food systems and this is a very playful way of bringing that conversation to the fore.
JT: So what drives you?
SJ: Oh… I don’t know, it’s hard to say, you just get passionate about things. You know I’ve moved quite a lot around different areas.
JB: There is definitely a systems theme
SJ: Yeah, I do like systems, even natural systems I find a beauty in them... what drives me is I want to try and create change, in some way.