In 1999 FACT, the Foundation for Art & Creative Technology, piloted an Internet TV project with city-wide high-rise tenants and Government agency the Liverpool Housing Action Trust (HAT). Danish artists’ collective Superflex provided the technical infrastructure and theoretical possibilities of this new DIY broadcasting technology.
It all began humbly, in a shared room in Coronation Court, Liverpool’s oldest tower block – since demolished. It had some successes and failures and crucially inspired a group of tenants, including the late Olga Bayley, to explore sustaining it. The project, tenantspin, continues today as a collaboration between FACT, the HAT-successor landlord Arena Housing and some of the original tenants plus a host of new ones.
The Liverpool HAT existed between 1993-2005 to regenerate 67 of the city’s tower blocks and to pass each community over to a successor landlord. With a very strong Community Development team armed with a passionate belief in engaging creative projects, the HAT worked with around 4,000 elderly tenants during its 12-year existence – a high-rise population that had moved up in the air during the 60’s as young married couples and aged together in under-managed properties.
With the costs of refurbishments exceeding projections, only 12 of the 67 blocks survived demolition. tenantspin is now working with residents of 5 of those in South Liverpool. In recent years tenantspin has expanded it’s working area to city wide residents of Liverpool with a particular focus on the North-End, areas of which are undergoing some of the most ambitious regeneration schemes in Europe.
Contemporary and historical context
Arts and housing regeneration has a substantial history. In 1968 David Harding became the UK’s first “town artist” in Glenrothes, identifying the role “specifically as someone who is employed in a city department of architecture and planning, and involved in the process of the making of that city. Also, someone who has a long-term and full-time commitment to it and its community; by that, I mean three or four years at least.”
He continues: “When I went to Glenrothes in 1968, the population of the town was 25,000. The town was planned to revitalize the coal industry in the Fife Region, but the coalmine that was developed for the town actually failed. The town then had to diversify. The population of the town is now around 40,000.”
From 1968 onwards, around 250 highly visual public artworks around Glenrothes were “orchestrated” by Harding and, after he left in 1978, successors: “The works became an important part of an otherwise monotonous environment. They became reference points and meeting places. Games have developed around them”.
Cut to Summer 2005 Issue 17 of the visual arts publication Engage takes as its theme Arts & Regeneration. In her article “Culture and Civil Renewal” Emily Keaney, Research Assistant at The Institute for Public Policy Research cites tenantspin as an example of a project in which participants have “a sense of pride in and confidence about the potential and abilities of the community as a whole”.
A fundamental difference here is the visual: can an experimental digital arts project engender a sense of pride in the same way that the highly visual murals and mosaics of the 1970’s did? Is the real regeneration invisible rather than the changing skyline, public monuments and buildings?
tenantspin is a voluntary project with professional support. FACT and Arena Housing employ people to keep plates spinning: funding, training, artistic and social housing content, presentations, evaluation, documentation, maintaining existing participants, co-opting new participants, staff development, contracts, capital investment, developing local talent, inter-generation work, marketing, audience development and monitoring technical advances.
Of the above, ‘maintaining existing participants’ has been a high priority for FACT and sustainability a conscious decision. From a sustained grouping of individuals, all other movements and investigations can eminate.
Without continuity, tenantspin loses its history, its culture and its
experimental nature. With so many regeneration agencies in Liverpool there is inevitably a high staff turnover which can send out completely the wrong message about sustainability and loyalty. Harding is correct to highlight the importance of commitment – and it is of interest at present to witness the high number of short-term “community jobs” that Liverpool’s Capital of Culture status brings to the city.
Quality, not quantity
Kath, Steve, Mavis and Vera, average age 66, have been involved with tenantspin since Day 1. They are the class of 1999 with over 500 live webcasts under their belt. They’ve seen Will Self, Alexei Sayle, David Puttnam, Margi Clarke sit guest on tenantspin.
They have travelled to America, Germany, Denmark, Sweden to inspire others and they have produced shows on e-democracy, the paranormal, football, high-rise living, communism, space travel, cryonics, fire safety, the pensions system, care, money, health and architecture. They have featured on the BBC, the Guardian, Computer World Magazine, Times Educational Supplement (front cover) and Engage.
In the tenantspin publication WORKBOOK from 2005 there is a list of 117 names of people who have been involved with tenantspin since 1999. In a manner similar to Tranmere Rovers’ strip having the names of every season ticket holder printed on it is a declaration of a small grouping and a huge nod to loyalty.
FACT supports tenantspin in developing this sense of local belonging while at the same time presenting itself, as in 2005, in New Delhi, Vilnius, London (Tate Modern & UK Housing Awards), Frankfurt, Amsterdam, Helsinki, Bratislava, Norwich, Cardiff, Harrogate and Manchester.
Quantity and quality
At the same time comes a ‘moral’ obligation to include and involve an increasing number of people. tenantspin is chasing a situation whereby genuine solid tight knit sustained involvement remains so but is shared with – transmitted – to a larger number of recipients. The project aims to achieve this through the following strategies:
1. E-Democracy – tenantspin has tested broadcasting directly onto regular TVs in the five high-rise blocks. Noticing the number of tenants watching the free internal CCTV signal coming from their front door, we are in the process of adding another signal to the RF Modulator at the top of each block to enable those without PCs to watch tenantspin full-screen on their TV sets, with only tuning required.
The filming and broadcast of key tenants meetings has also taken place sporadically over the past few years and is an activity that will increase dramatically. Real valuable content researched, presented and transmitted by a small number of tenants for a larger group can be produced from the new studio that is within walking distance of the 5 blocks.
2. Artist’s commissions
FACT commissions artists that are sympathetic to producing work collaboratively for an arena outside the white cube gallery. An example would be Chris Watson, founder member of Cabaret Voltaire and sound recordist on Attenborough’s “Life in the undergrowth”. Intrigued by the soundless views from the high-rise properties overlooking Sefton Park, Chris and the tenants produced a soundtrack comprising human/animal recordings made in the park between 3pm and 2am. That which could be seen but not heard became magically audible as we piped the composed sounds back into tenants’ TVs free of charge through the afore-mentioned CCTV cable system.
Chris could only spend two weeks in Liverpool producing the work but with his vast experience of animals, environments and weather, he understands what each specific community needs (in this case both the tenants and FACT) in terms of how it shifts and operates, how to get the most out of it, knowing when to pounce and when to leave.
In this way, and with tenantspin’s sustainable base, FACT can bring strong creative forces into the mix for short bursts to develop existing tenants’ horizons and to draw in new participants through their ears, eyes and minds; to approach exclusion from unusual and surprising angles, regenerating existing views but in a manner invisible to the outside world.
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