Corridor 8 writer Joanna Jowett spoke to Kerry Harker and Claire Irving, Founder and Artistic Director and Communities Director of the East Leeds Project, to find out about how the project is gaining momentum and putting local makers at the centre of a new creative conversation about what life is like in the east of the city. Raising questions around community, identity, sustainability and participation outside of the city centre’s thriving arts scene, the project’s first commission ‘What Makes Gipton?’ (2019) was a new participatory project by artist Andy Abbott, commissioned for this year’s Gipton Gala and funded by Leeds Inspired as part of Index Festival.
[C8] Firstly, can you tell me about how the East Leeds Project came about and the motivation behind it?
[KH] The project started as part of the Leeds2023 bid for European Capital of Culture. It responds to deep-seated social challenges and the disconnect between communities on the fringes of Leeds and the expanding city centre. Last year after the bid had run its course, I met up with Claire Irving, who I first met in the early days of Patrick Studios (Irving was on the Board whilst Harker had a studio). It was only last year that we discovered we both called East Leeds home.
[CI] I was so keen to come on board with the project, as Kerry is based in Gipton and I am in Harehills just down the road. To start the project, we’re mapping what exists here already in the east of the city. It’s clear there is a lack of messy creative spaces, no studios but not even local community hubs, or pubs!
[KH] There is no platform for contemporary visual arts here, so we’re feeling round the edges of that and asking, ‘what are the visual arts? what do the visual arts do in the community?’ and broadening that out, with a focus on making. That is a far more accessible conversation for people to have. We’re also really interested in social practice within the visual arts and that’s at the heart of the project.
[CI] As we started to try and make connections, we realised more and more that nearly all the places where you can engage with other members of the community seem to have been swept away here in East Leeds. We began to realise that this is a perfect opportunity to create a space with a community that they could take ownership of.
[C8] Is the mapping of local activity and the East Leeds Makers survey continuing and how is ‘’What Makes Gipton?’ part of that conversation?
[KH] We have done quite a lot of mapping already and that is continuing this summer. We’d like to feed back about our findings from the East Leeds Makers Survey and we’re asking people about how they would like to see that information collated and how we can make best use of it. It has been amazing how many people we have found locally who are makers already.
[CI] We now we have a base in the Methodist Church in Gipton and that has also been a catalyst for starting conversations with other community groups and networks as we have a physical presence in a local building.
[KH] We’re trying to build networks, as the same networks for artists don’t exist outside of the city centre, so we’re having to build it from scratch.
[CI] It has also occurred to us that ‘What Makes Gipton?’ (a participatory artwork by Andy Abbott) can grow and be added to, as each artist/maker has a card that forms part of the structure (and the structure can be reconfigured in multiple ways). New people can become part of it as they get involved and we add new cards. The piece also makes use of Zappar app codes, to allow anyone with a device and the app to see a video of the artists talking about their work, so when we take it out on tour, it will be showcasing their work around the area and making further connections.
[KH] We’re just in the planning stages of how we get ‘What Makes Gipton?’ touring throughout the rest of East Leeds. It has been a great conversation starter and we’d love to have more detailed and focused conversations with communities across the whole of East Leeds now.
[C8] It seems the language you have used in the open call was intentionally accessible, opening up a dialogue with people who currently don’t identify themselves as artists, but rather ‘makers’ in the community. How central is that accessibility and openness to the project?
[CI] I believe that we are all makers, we are all creators in one form or another. The distinction comes when and if you want to follow that through and take your making to another level and make it into your job. Aspiring to push yourself forward in your creative thinking and having the space to do that in, outside of the city is few and far between. If you can’t afford a city centre studio, but you’re in East Leeds, then you might have your garage, shed, your kitchen table and that is all, but people are still making. Being inclusive is what we’re trying to do and so the language really is important.
[KH] Essentially what we’re trying to do is de-centralise contemporary practice in the city. A very narrow conversation about visual art is inaccessible to lots of people, including lots of artists whose work practices don’t fit into a narrow definition of visual art, often dictated by London and major institutions. At times I get very frustrated by that narrow definition of contemporary visual art, as for so many artists it doesn’t fit. Interrogating value systems and value judgements and those broader questions about quality and whose quality is also important to us.
[C8] I’m imagining it is that which drove the decision to look at flexible and temporary structures such as the ‘Pavilion’ you have plans for, utilising the MassBespokeTM system developed by Bauman Lyons architects?
[KH] Yes, because using that system means the project has to be driven by the needs and desires of the community. The Mass Bespoke system utilises technologies that aim to democratise the construction process and enable a community-led approach responding to local need. So it will be bespoke to the needs of this community, but also made here in East Leeds. Our experiment is taking this system used for housing and seeing if we can use it for creative and cultural spaces. Our idea is to bring together the architects and the artists and communities we are working with, who will determine what it will look like and how it will operate. We don’t want to dictate it, it will be guided by the process itself – including budget and planning – by the people we are working with.
[CI] And we just want to be part of the conversation. The exciting thing is that through this process something is bound to come out that we haven’t even thought of.
[C8] Have you found any examples of other similar projects that exist outside of city centres that inspire you?
[KH] There aren’t many. We do have a problem within the UK, that cultural infrastructure isn’t well distributed beyond city centres. I think in European countries, it seems there are larger cultural institutions and hubs outside of city centres. We really admire what In-Situ (Pendle, Lancashire) do and In Certain Places (Preston), where people are getting down in to the fine grain of what is happening in those areas, and getting bedded down in to the places themselves, so artistic activity is ongoing and part of the place itself. We’re really interested in the east of cities as well. So many cities have what may be problematic east ends, i.e. East End of London, East of Paris, New York. Some of it is historical, to do with patterns of pollution, from when chimney smoke blew to the east and so those areas would be where the poorest communities would be. Something we’re quite excited to explore in the future is a relationship with the east of other cities nationally and internationally.
[C8] What have been the greatest challenges so far for the project?
[KH] The real challenge is starting up a project or business at a time when support organisations are few and far between for cultural start-ups. We wanted to set up East Leeds Project as a CIC and it is all those practicalities, despite our experience of having done this before, that are the real hurdles. There will also be some real challenges when it does come to designing the physical space too, as we can’t be all things to all people. We want to be responsive to what people need, but we’re going to have to navigate that. We’re putting together a project team now, who will feed back from the community into the project and steer it, as well as hopefully working with an artist who will work with us on a more detailed ten month R&D project.
[CI] There is still a lot of work to be done, we need to think about how people will use it, how it is funded and what its longevity is.
[KH] Another challenge of the project is the danger of transformation and the gentrification of places. Visual artists can be at the forefront of some of those problems and open to be used by planners with their own agendas. We’re cautious about that, but this isn’t a project we see ourselves delivering and then moving on from. We live here and there isn’t anywhere to hide, we want to get it right. We’re here for the long term.
Full information on the East Leeds Project can be found at: https://eastleedsproject.org/
Joanna Jowett is a writer, artist and producer based in Leeds and is also co-director of Copypages.org, an artist’s publishing platform.