In March 2020 along with the rest of the world our plans for the next 12 months were put on hold. Much of our work was based on cups of tea with our neighbours and large gatherings of people at festivals and celebrations. We had to regroup and think carefully about how we reframed our programme to work within our neighbourhoods and communities at this unprecedented time. We obviously wanted people to stay home and be safe but, more than ever, we wanted to make work that was purposeful and useful, that helped people have a voice and feel a sense of purpose and connection.
The programme was generated in various ways, through existing commissions flexing to accommodate the change in circumstances, to new commissions to explore what could be.
Our existing long term artist in residence in Fleetwood, Gillian Wood, set up a regional Scrub Hub. Just starting out on a 12 month live/ work residency when lockdown hit, she found her ways to get to know her neighbours and the area seriously curtailed when she couldn’t go out and meet people. Instead she called out to people with sewing skills to get involved in sewing scrubs for local health care workers. Through doing this she got to know the town if a different way, she discovered the skills and talents hidden in every day domestic chores and formed bonds with people over newly found or rediscovered making skills. She also got to know the frustrations and struggles of the front line workers and the politics surrounding these topics.
To support Gillian to tell the story of the scrub hub, we commissioned artist Tina Dempsey to further explore the act of care within the scrub hub group. She interviewed those involved so she could explore their personal stories and share the wisdom.
Locally based photographer Henry Iddon was commissioned to document how lockdown was changing the places and spaces of our local towns. A speculative commission, we didn’t know where this work would take us, but we were sure that it was important to document that local story for future use.
Lockdown was a time when artists began engaging with their own environment in a way that they don’t normally have time to do. We worked with graphic designer Daniel Astbury, normally based in Myanmar but back home in Blackpool due to the lockdown, to co-create posters with key workers. He was interested in challenging the messages broadcast in the mainstream media and understanding the true experience of those on the front line. The posters they created make for a very different narrative.
Our Creative Community Activist set up a series of virtual weekly debates to gage how thoughts on chosen topics were developing and if that could inform what work we commission.
Our Blackpool long term resident artist, Mark Borthwick, set up a telephone storyline to make connections with his neighbours and created gardening packs to encourage community action. Mark also collaborated with Ali Roy, Professor of Social Research to document his experience of being an artist in isolation during lockdown and how we could learn from this to shape our future programmes.
We partnered with Abingdon Studios, The Grundy and Blackpool School of Art to host Meanwhile a virtual series of artists talks as a way to keep the creative conversation locally moving forward.
Finally we wanted to be open to how socially engaged practice might develop during this time. With so many of our normal engagement tools not available to us, how would we develop socially engaged practice in the future and what would that mean for our programme? We invited ten artists to form a virtual group based on the notion of small radical acts. Five of these artists were based in Blackpool and Wyre so had a detailed knowledge of the local culture and environment, and five artists were based elsewhere with practices interested in conversation, people and place. We continue to work with this group to explore how artists can help us shape our programme.
Our work has changed and will continue to change as we respond to the ever moving situation. We have to work with smaller numbers of people, find new methods of communication and respond to peoples new priorities. This is no bad thing, we all need challenges to the ways in which we work and there is no bigger challenge than a global pandemic. We hope that we will move forward with a renewed focus for what we want to achieve, ever more creative responses and a confidence that our communities have rediscovered the importance of weaving creative activities throughout their daily lives.