The work explores the contrast between the 'Arts & Crafts' utopian ideals that the estate was built on and the corrosive effect that Thatcher's 'Right to Buy' policy had on council housing across Britain.
By collectively creating a ‘soft’ bench, that is a wooden bench covered entirely in knitted wool material, I wanted people to think about the ‘soft’ social activities that happen in public spaces - meeting friends and chatting, reading a book, watching the world go by.
A Soft Bench in a Hard Lanscape
I grew up during the 1960s on the Glebe Farm Council Estate in Birmingham, England. The estate was constructed in the mid-1930s and was designed specifically for working class families who were being re-housed from the overcrowded and insanitary conditions of the inner city slums. In response to the squalid slum conditions created during the Industrial revolution architects and urban planners during the 1920s and 30s embraced the ideas and aesthetics of the Arts and Crafts Movement and estates based on utopian notions of what sub-urban housing for working people might be, and as such they were often referred to as ‘model villages’.
Although I left the housing estate in the mid-Seventies many of my family still live there, including my Mom, several Aunties, Cousins and their children. During the past 30 years I visit The Glebe on a regular basis and in consequence have witnessed the changes that have taken place in which unemployment, the dismantling of social housing, an erosion of family cohesion, an abandonment of the social interaction in favour of a retreat to an individualised life of self-interest, alongside an increase in petty crime, vandalism and drug use have clearly effected the way in which people live, relate to one another and share public spaces. Over the same 30 years I have also bore witness to changes that have taken place within myself in which the books I have read, the people I have met, my sexual awakening, a university education, owning my own home and committing a career to education and the arts have shaped my sensibilities and the way that I now relate to the place I came from and the people who live there. For the past 15 or so years whenever I visit my Mom my heart sinks and I am overawed with a sense of loss, sadness and above all helplessness.
In December 2004 two significant incidents happened that further sharpened how I felt about how my life relates to what is was ‘then’ and ‘there’ to my life as it is ‘here’ and ‘now’: the first of these being that at the age of 74 my Mom was pushed over by a drunk whilst Christmas shopping and broke her hip and the second being that at the age of 82 my Auntie was mugged for £10 bingo winnings on the way back from her social club. In spite of these incidents, and many more I’m sure they keep from us, it is impossible to get either of them to even consider leaving the neighbourhood, after all it is their home, all of there reference points reside in one square mile radius of there houses.
And so, early 2005 when I was invited by Clare Thornton to make a piece for ‘Hardcore Soft’ - a mixed media exhibition she was curating for the National Museum for Art, Design and Architecture, Norway – I knew exactly where this work would be heading. She was looking to include work that challenged preconceptions that sewing, textile art and craft only to relates to making functional objects and wanted to present works by a range of artists and makers who create object/works that are more loaded in meaning – art pieces that ask questions about people and place and ask us to consider contemporary social issues. All of the women of my mother’s generation knitted and I was compelled by the idea of inviting them to collaborate with me on a project that involved collaboratively knitting with them as a way of opening up spaces for us to talk about, share and reflect on ‘there’, ‘here’, ‘then’ and ‘now’. Thus my response to Claire’s proposition of a Hard/Soft dynamic became the ‘Soft Bench’ project and I began work in April 2005.
The benches that interest me were more often than not commissioned and fabricated by local government offices and their shape is fairly universal: if you wrapped one up in paper you would know it was a bench, a bit like wrapping up an umbrella as a birthday present, its size and shape signify itself at a denotative level, it is recognised by its very “benchness” and our cultural awareness of what a bench is. These benches emerged during the nineteen century, a time when patriarchal local governing bodies throughout Europe, America and their colonies began projects of modeling public spaces as places that reflected paternalistic notions of democracy and civic pride.
Thus by working with local women to re-figure the denotative form of a ‘public bench’ in the making of an improbable piece of ‘public art’ the possibility of it shifting from being publicly owned (and by this I mean owned by public institutions and local government) to being personally owned local people encouraged to claim a stake in re-figuring their public spaces.
I began my approaching women who I knew through my Mom’s network of fellow knitters and a local coffee morning club. At first they were reticent but through hanging out with them, chatting, talking about old times and current concerns trust in me was built up – after all I was a local lad and Beryl’s son. I knew that through their skills we could knit their stories and histories into the making of the covering.
I’ve long been interested in the way in which we use and share public spaces, in particular public benches. I’ve had many a conversation with people from the Glebe about the benches that used to be in the middle of the shopping arcade before they were removed 15 or so years ago to make way for the car park. I would ask them how many benches there used to be and where they were situated. Everyone had there own opinion but the only one I tend to rely on is the grandson of Mr. Brown the greengrocer, whose family have had the same shop since it was built in 1936 – and of course, my own.
My interest in benches reflects my ongoing interest as an artist/curator in the aesthetics of urban form and the animation of public spaces. Within the urban environments benches offer people opportunities to publicly act out a range of private and social activities but it is only when people occupy and act out public spaces that they become social spaces, and it is this that interests and excites me. The object (bench) is fixed, fully realised by its designer whereas its animation through social activity is transient, temporary and as such has infinite permutations. It is the mutation of the fixed object and animation of it where the ‘Soft Bench’ project situates itself. It is both an object and an event based project. By working with the women to refigure a bench that has significance for them and myself it is both the time spent with them and the object realized that holds significance
By collectively creating a ‘soft’ bench, that is a wooden bench covered entirely in knitted wool material, I wanted people to think about the ‘soft’ social activities that happen in public spaces. For example, meeting friends and chatting, reading a book, watching the world go by. These are temporary moments that pass away, leaving the empty bench behind at the end of each day. For a short while this piece of public furniture is transformed by the people using it. Think about sitting on a park bench or other public seating (perhaps at a bus stop). The bench is usually made of hard materials such as wood, metal, plastic - sometimes even stone/concrete. Public furniture design is made to last a long time, to withstand wear and tear and the seasons.
By recreating a public bench that was removed from the estate 20 years ago the work explores the contrast between the Glebe now and the utopian ideals the estate was built on.
Soft Bench was Knitted by:
Why a Soft Bench?
Think about sitting on a park bench or other public seating (perhaps at a bus stop). The bench is usually made of hard materials such as wood, metal, plastic - sometimes even stone or concrete. Public furniture design is made to last a long time, to withstand wear and tear and the seasons.
By collectively creating a ‘soft’ bench - a wooden bench covered entirely in knitted wool material - the sculpture gives us the chance to think about the ‘soft’ social activities that happen in public spaces. For example, meeting friends and chatting, reading a book, watching the world go by. These are temporary moments that pass away, leaving the empty bench behind at the end of each day. For a short while this piece of public furniture is transformed by the people using it.
The sculpture showcases the kind of extraordinary craft talents that people have that are rarely recognised on a day-to-day basis. As Trevor points out, “Knitting is an incredibly under-recognised artistic skill and I wanted the ladies to show their skills in a very public way. I was born on the Glebe and when I was invited to exhibit in Norway I took the opportunity to return to the estate and make an artwork that will be seen internationally.”