Sheds with wings: making space(s) in the sky

Chiara Organtini (Indisciplinarte, Italy) visits Kate Stewart (We Make Places, UK) in June 2017 in Liverpool

What if we dismiss our own habits to create new habitats? What if we inject the daily life of a city with unexpected encounters and creative provocations in the public space? What if we relocate our observation points to shake our points of view? Do we dare to reclaim the sky to look out and dream bigger?

Kate Stewart did it. She has developed a project called Take Over Flyover. It is a festival taking place at the famous Liverpool Flyover, a space for co-creation with locals, a pedestrian dreaming zone dedicated to community making and reflections on the future of the area. At Indisciplinarte we had a similar idea to organise a festival called Foresta, a village of tree houses for artists in residency, a space where artists and locals could rework the city discussing unexpected visions with policy makers.

When I connected these two projects I felt like Kate is the right person to join me in investigating my initial questions. With her we could possibly hack the sky with our ideas.

This point in common confirmed my first impression from Kate when we met at the CitizensLab network meeting in Brussels: when were asked to position ourselves in the space according to the sector we work in, she kept on moving from one group to another saying she was in between all these points. At that moment this wandering lady got all my sympathy, and could resonate with my work at Indisciplinarte, an organisation that claims interdisciplinary and boldness as its fundamental values.

Because of these first feelings I then decided to jump on a plane (hit the road or even better the sky considering what we said before) and go visit Kate in Liverpool to learn more about her organisation We Make Places. WMP is a community interest company (a type of social enterprise in UK that uses its profits and assets for the public good) that helps communities to develop sustainable projects, to reconsider ignored, underused or condemned places in a new light to increase the beauty and quality of life of the community. This mission we deeply share here in Terni, a city which is dealing with urban voids and shadows of a grey industrial past.

When Kate and I started planning the visit I was happy to discover that Evija Taurene fellow CitizensLab member from Cesis, Latvia was going to join us. We decided to share a flat in Liverpool, which made the experience even more enriching. We had the chance to talk about Evija’s work at Cesis municipality and her interests for city, urban planning and development through citizens’ participation. Together we created a team willing to help Kate in the delivery of the second Maverick City symposium that happened on the 23rd of June at the Liverpool Public Library.

Inside Liverpool Public Library at the Maverick City Symposium

The Maverick City is a cultural symposium that provides an inspiring insight into a growing movement of artists, designers and activists who deliver grass-roots projects in communities across the globe.

This year the symposium focused on community-led projects from cities around the world and it was framed around three main themes: art in public spaces, making and housing.

I had the privilege to be part of the symposium in conversation with other artists and activists from Chicago, Rio, the Netherlands as well as with local practitioners and community members. Among those Gerry Proctor, a CitizensLab member from the organisation Engage Liverpool also took part in the symposium. Gerry told us about an upcoming city game Urban Bingo he and Jakaterina Lavrinec, network member as well, are going to launch in Liverpool soon following up another mobility experience within the CitizensLab network.

As the symposium promised, the conversation was not at all frontal and self-referential. Thanks to the moderation of Toria Buzza, a head of We Make Places, who, with sharp intelligence and irony, connected all the speeches in a perfect choir; speakers were in dialogue with each other and with the audience. Besides the symposium was really a place for sympathy and deep human connections with the other participants invited by Kate.

I shared the morning panel on art in public space with Carron Little and Tiago Cosmo, creative minds coming from different parts of the world but sharing the vision on arts as engaging encounter for everyone. Carron is an artist and performer from Chicago, who uses poetry as the starting point for her visual, text based or performative investigation linked to people and cities and often located in public spaces. In Liverpool for instance she is developing with We Make Places a site specific version of her Spare Rib Revisited project, a collection of individual poems based on interviews she conducted with 100 Liverpool women from all ages. She is going to present them as a choir or as a sculpture, a poetic way to let this multiple voices express themselves showing what is hidden under the surface by the official narrative of the city.

Like Carron Tiago is an artist, he is a violinist from Rio, a gentle but passionate art activist. Together with Karolin Broosch, a violinist from Hamburg and Kaja Pettersen, a Norwegian cellist based in Rio, Tiago founded Camerata Laranjeiras. Camerata Laranjeiras is an orchestra composed by young people from the entire city whose aim is to make music accessible to everyone. On the one hand this project allow youngsters to get closer to classic and contemporary music and to give them a perspective, on the other hand the orchestra invades the city promoting music everywhere and for everyone. What stroke me the most in Tiago’s talk was the description of the hard situation in Rio, a situation of violence, poverty and conflicts that he managed to heal through arts. Tiago invests all his energy to offer the same chance to others. This surprising answer to violence, this care for the beauty is what he and Carron cultivated for the upcoming days together as a deep lessons seed in my mind.

Carron, Tiago and me in conversation during the session

In the afternoon Kate and Steve Threlfall, a designer, an architect and co-founder of We Make Places and Friends of the Flyover, took the floor. Their speeches focused on the process of making and this neurological and intellectual activating power for the projects that We Make Places create around this practice.

Kate’s speech was inspiring, sharp and multi-layered. She managed to combine scientific references that articulated perfectly the empowering value of making with storytelling on real people and direct experiences. She led us into a journey sharing her own motivation and passion for investigating the topic and the phases that the making implies (decision taking, composition of materials, feedback evaluation and restart till being in flow with the creation). I was deeply touched by one of the stories about a guy who coops with his anxiety issues and panic attacks workshopping with We Make Places.

While Kate created an inspiring overall framework, Steve followed talking about his current residency at Media Lab Prada, Madrid as a collaboration between We Make Places’ project Urban Workbench and Todo Por La Praxis dedicated to the community value of making. Running in the opposite direction from alienation, this idea of coming back to making corresponds to people empowerment, to regain your own imagination and agency as we also experienced the following days on our own skin.

Crossing a wide range of realms and sectors, exploring a diversity of examples, together we narrated a collaborative discourse: we all spoke about utopia, we hacked the space to activate futures, we all worked to promote changes through creative actions or encounters. We probably use different languages and tools to do so, but our path converge in the attempt to help people envision alternatives, break the line of the given and subvert the voids we created in cities and people with creation, change riot with joy reclaiming different ways of living and thinking. In this perspective all disruptive thinking is indeed a way to break feedback loop behaviours, make choices and find new ways of DIY (do-it-yourself) or even more DIT (do-it-together).

A bunch of dreamers after the symposium

My first day in Liverpool was spent sharing ideas and inspirations in a space on top of the library, whose stunning terrace offered an overview of Liverpool skyline next to the pulse of the Flyover.

The Flyover

Reflections then turn into music with tinning glasses and genuine laughs over dinner with Kate, Evija, Gerry and the rest of the Symposium guests and organisers.

On the Saturday we pack all our energies and headed as early birds to Rose Place, in Everton, where We Make Places recently opened a workshop to create brand new project with the help of a multidisciplinary artist Angelo Madonna. This project is a learning hub for communities and people that can gain the tools and ability to reshape their own spaces picking DIY skills and collaborative attitudes. As I directly experienced, Urban Workbench enables grassroots processes of urban regeneration, changing people thinking, the way they see things and they relate to each other.

We spent the day at West Everton Community centre with a group of community members and stakeholders to create outdoor benches for their courtyard to make the space alive, visible and enjoyable for elderly people. West Everton Community Council is indeed a resident led organisation that advocate for residents to ensure they have a voice at all levels, also identifying and responding to all issues that directly affect the whole community.

The West Everton Community Centre courtyard

The community members told us about the story of the place and the recent fire that damaged part of the building. They told us the story of a new project in Great Homer that will create a new hub of activity in North Liverpool and will act as a catalyst for the wider redevelopment of this part of the city. Their role as community centre representatives is to ensure a balance regeneration process where bricks are not more important than people and where quality of life and community relationships are equally taken into account.

The whole day was a collective creative workshop, teaming up according to tasks and projects in-between excitement, release of energies and ideas but also frustrations for not being perfectly able to control or to do the work. This affected of course also my thinking and I realised the importance of creating infrastructures for participation providing spaces for the people, and giving tools to people to make their own spaces.

The group at work

During the day I found myself hammering, sawing, breaking pallets, lost in not knowing what and how to do tasks. I wanted to achieve something without knowing how, I wanted to get final results without observing and listening to the group.

Improving my skills together with Carron

Then I managed to be more in the flow, streaming with the group, listening and observing what was around me and the objects we were creating. This adjustable navigation is indeed one of the principles I try to apply in my daily work as a project manager. Making together is really a way to reset minds and bodies, shifting the focus on a common goal, sharing responsibilities and forgetting our egos and assumptions: we entered in a land where collaboration, creativity and reactions where the keywords a perfect receipt for new ideas.

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Testing our bench while taking some rest

This afternoon, besides producing new benches, the community gave me practical ideas for our internal fab lab in CAOS. Above all it gave me confidence and changed the way I think about me and the possibilities I have to impact practicing acting thinking and adjusting the navigation beyond the simple planning.

On Sunday I was ready to jump into Mayfest, a festival along the docks merging air force demonstration with food station and family event. This overwhelming stream of people made me think about the political situation in UK and Europe in general, nationalism and public space security obsession. I found a shelter at Tate where I recalled my old passion for Holzer’s truisms. That echoed a bit some of the topics and personal stories we shared in the previous days like the poetic encounter in daily spaces and the relationships with authorities and the burden of this on our ability to be free.

Truisms: never stop listening

Dazed and confused I then looked for comfort and coffee. I joined Kate, Toria, Tiago and Corrin for a Brunch at Baltic District Triangle, the vibrant area regenerated by creatives where We Make Places has its own office/basecamp: a colourful cell from where they spread their pioneer initiatives.

Kate’s accurate portrait

My experience in Liverpool still resonates in my body and in my head, and is more a patchwork of diverse areas of the city that speak about a complexity that merge opposites stories from gentrification to regeneration. But above all I still have a gallery of voices and faces that feed me with inspirations: Kate makes magic happen, she creates a perfect mix of people and then let the process go.

There is a precise moment I remember: when I was taught how to sew, in that movement I felt like playing the violin not as gently as Tiago does but in the effort of learning: in that moment it was like I was cutting away my fears and the limits I imposed myself.

Some people are like stars: what keeps them alive is the balance between the energy they get while releasing their own light.

My adventure started by thinking about the sky and ended by dreaming about the space. This sounds like one of those adventure that can really open up horizons.

Aleksandra Mir’s Space Tapestry at Tate Liverpool, a lesson learnt

Chiara Organtini is an art worker active in project management and creative processes facilitation currently based in Terni, Italy. With her organisation Indisciplinarte she is engaged in the organisation of Terni international performing arts festival and in the curation of CAOS centro arti opificio siri, a multidisciplinary arts center and creative hub born from the renovation of an industrial space. Her mission is to activate and enable uncanny connections pursuing a vision of arts as generator of change.

Liked Chiara's story?

Read here about the Maverick City Symposium from the viewpoint of another CitizensLab member Evija Taurene (Cēsis Municipality, Latvia).