If people don’t visit arts and culture spaces as much as we’d like, one solution might be to move those spaces closer to their target audiences. Let’s pick up the art gallery, the cinema or the theatre and put on a show right here in your local supermarket car park.
Creating a temporary structure out of shipping containers, scaffold poles and stretched tent fabric, with the intention of taking it to community spaces and inviting locals to suggest a programme of arts and culture events is no small project. The MET (Mobile Event Tent) is a creative space that has been designed to travel in and around the city of Preston and, importantly, to be flexible and responsive to the places it resides in. The MET can variously be a film venue or a visual art space, an open room for dancing or a venue for a community meal. With an open mind and a desire to create something enjoyed by as many people as possible, anything suggested by the local community was welcomed by the MET’s planners, as long as it could fit inside the tent.
The MET can be placed almost anywhere (where the ground is tough enough – it’s heavy) and as such it’s allowed to take on new lives each time it gets activated. Every day, sometimes multiple times a day, the MET gets redefined – today a cinema, tomorrow a theatre, next a café or a lecture theatre. One day I go in and there’s an art critique session taking place. Later there’s a tribute band playing and then a one-act play. This place has been designed to be both warm and welcoming while also being ultimately flexible.
So, what is this thing, the MET? To start with, I’m finding it difficult to categorise it. Is it an arts space? On one hand, it certainly seems so, given the programme of artistic offerings and creative activities. The MET was devised and commissioned by In Certain Places, a public art research project based at the University of Central Lancashire, in this instance collaborating with the architects Research Design. They create artworks that seek to challenge how we understand and experience places and foster long-term change by connecting institutions and communities. They even commissioned a decorative mural, ‘the joy of union’ by Jenny Steele (2022), which adorns the insides of the tent. Undulating, repeated patterns line the interior of the space, bringing it to life and making the room feel warm and peopled. The space feels like it’s more than an infrastructure project though – this is definitely creative arts practice, made with quality and integrity, not just a marquee and some chairs for people to sit on.
On the other hand, perhaps the MET feels more like a local community centre – a space where people can come together and engage in activities that feel relevant to them. The programme of events that takes place wherever the tent finds itself isn’t set by the project’s creators – this isn’t ‘curated’ by a creative lead. Instead, it plays host to a co-produced programme of events and activities informed by those in whose community it currently sits. During the summer of 2023 the MET was located in the car park of a Morrisons supermarket in Ribbleton, on the outskirts of Preston, were it hosted over forty community events and attracted more than 1000 participants from the local community. Later, it was placed in University Square at UCLan where it was part of the Lancashire Encounter Festival and hosted creative welcome events for students arriving for the autumn semester. Some of the events were certainly artistic, but others were simply people coming together in a social space. The lack of specification for what the community is ‘allowed’ to do with the space feels delightful. No prescription here.
I was intrigued by this proposition, but when I go to visit the MET, my first impression of it is actually a little cold – perhaps even austere. As I approach it, white in an otherwise grey urban landscape, it feels somewhere between a covered archaeological site, a large pest fumigation tent and a forensic investigation – not a place where people have afternoon teas, practise yoga or watch tribute acts of their favourite bands. I tell the project director that the undecorated exterior looks like a collection of lonely washing machines and the puckered skin of the tent reminds me of disused mattresses. He thinks the indented buttons are closer to the tufted fabric of a Chesterfield sofa, and we agree to disagree. And here starts my realisation that this space can, ultimately, be whatever you want it to be. Distinctions and definitions of what the MET is aren’t really what this project is about.
Social place, or an arts space? I’m starting to feel that I’m not going to get very far if I try to dissect this project or attempt to give it a label.
The MET certainly isn’t a permanent space as it can be picked up and moved at any time. (That makes it sound easier than it really is –a few days are required to take the tent down and rebuild it and there is plenty of associated tech kit and staff.) So, in a way this is similar to a Spiegeltent, living a nomadic life and placing down temporary roots wherever it goes, perhaps reminiscent of a tent at a music festival, here for a few days or weeks, then gone.
Visitors to the tent said that its presence in Ribbleton has prompted questions, started conversations and changed the relationship they have with the car park, shifting their ideas about that space. There’s good reason to believe that its strengths lie in its perceived plainness – a white box on which local communities can portray whatever they like. Importantly, the events here seem to be led by the audience, by the community, not by the director, the designer, the vicar, the councillor or the curator.
The MET came about when it became evident to In Certain Places and Preston City Council, from looking at previous research in and around Preston, that people who live in communities of disadvantage were not engaging with cultural events taking place in the city centre. The initial idea for the MET grew out of this observation and a desire, on the part of In Certain Places, to change this. Instead of following the age-old traditions of programming arts outreach – yet more accessible theatre, street markets or spoken word festivals – in those communities, the project’s initiators thought a different approach would be worth a try. And so, the concept of a high-quality, mobile arts centre came into being, specifically with the intention of creating a place where a co-produced programme of events could be hosted.
In their press statement, the organisers say: ‘By taking culture on the road, this mobile events tent reaches out to communities far and wide, bridging gaps and breaking barriers. It moves beyond the confines of the city centre, venturing into neighbourhoods where cultural opportunities are low. By bringing the arts directly to communities of disadvantage, the MET ensures that everyone has a chance to participate, learn, and be inspired.’
And they were inspired. The MET hired community link partners Strive 2 Thrive Lancashire CIC – people with knowledge and experience of working in this local community. Once they began reaching out to locals, the ideas for activating the MET started coming in – a drama workshop, a community meeting, a tea dance, a Bollywood film screening, a ‘sow and grow’ session, a carnival dance class, even an ‘interactive storyline debate workshop’ with Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service – ideas beyond what the project planners expected and, importantly, directly relevant to the people it served.
Initial research findings – this is a project conceived in a university, so there’s ongoing evaluation and monitoring of the MET’s impact, of course – are showing positive responses to the tent on its various sites. It feels to me like the MET offers something of a solution to the low engagement in culture and community events that’s plagued Britain for so long. There’s potentially a formula here for creating a more long-lasting shift in community engagement and interaction with art, heritage and culture.
Yet it would be too simplistic just to replicate this project in every other town and city with low arts engagement. The MET wasn’t designed as a cookie-cutter approach that can be applied anywhere. This project could only be in Preston, responding to local questions and grounded in a deep understanding of the place, built up over years of previous work by In Certain Places. It needed the right people to be in the right place at the right time. And there’s an immediacy in the materiality of the tent, too. The fit-out of the site is done by local joiners, local scaffolders construct the MET’s exoskeleton and the tech team are from Preston. This isn’t a festival operation that goes ‘on the road’ to the next destination booked by its agent – it’s something that stays with the city, being put up and taken down each time by locals, each time connecting more deeply with the places. It’s the connections The MET makes along the way, the people it draws in, the memories that get created there that make this tent so special. Interventions by spaces like the MET, I believe, create temporary shifts in the perception of places, leaving as many questions behind as they do creative memories.
This project is an opportunity. Instead of finding answers to existing challenges, it’s more about asking new questions. Pushing boundaries can, sometimes, simply be holding a space for people to ‘be’ in. And so, the MET feels more like an open proposition, a blank canvas on which to paint, a carefully crafted space that is content to end up wherever its inhabitants on any one day take it. Today it’s a gig space, tomorrow it’s an art gallery, a café, a cinema. So, I tell myself not to try and slot this project into a category – artistic or social, temporary or permanent. Instead, it’s easier to simply to enjoy what the MET offers, and to wonder what it might become next time it goes on its travels.
Find out more about the MET (Mobile Event Tent) on the In Certain Places website.
Steve Slack is a writer and heritage interpretation consultant based in Manchester.
This article is supported by In Certain Places at the University of Central Lancashire.