The Expanded City Network: Routes In, Routes Out

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Writer and artist Lauren Velvick reflects on the second Expanded City Network event, Routes In, Routes Out, held at Avenham Park Pavilion in Preston on 27 July 2017.

Gavin Renshaw’s Expanded City research and output continues to oscillate between instrumentalised cycling advocacy and an artistic investigation of landscape that takes into account socio-political and cultural influences. In line with this, for his ‘in-conversation’ event, Renshaw was joined by Jack Thurston, presenter of The Bike Show on Resonance FM. In order that Thurston would be able to speak on the cycling infrastructure of Preston in particular, the day of the event was spent on a ride with Renshaw that was referred to throughout. The cultural history of cycling has been instrumental to Renshaw’s project from the earliest stages, and this was reiterated in order to set the scene for the discussion that followed. In ‘36 Views’, Renshaw’s series of photographs of Preston taken from the vantage point of cycling routes around the periphery of the city (see below), it is easy to discern the links between grand ideas about landscape and the activity of cycling, which offers the ability to move swiftly across the land whilst simultaneously in physical contact with it. This emphasis on the physicality of travelling by bike is reiterated in Renshaw’s consideration of what can be seen from this specific vantage point, and the idea of travelling as far as the eye can see, or perhaps seeing the potential for travel in the landscape.

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As a continuation of, and tangent to, Renshaw’s ongoing interests, Thurston emphasised the material links between art and cycling, particularly the nature of cycling as a cheap form of transport and artists as often lacking in disposable income. For his radio show, Thurston developed a method of interviewing by bike, which brings to mind the evident difficulties in cycling two-abreast on the majority of Britain’s roads, and how this is in contrast with the Clarion motto: Fellowship is Life. This point was raised by Renshaw and Thurston during their discussion, whereby if fellowship is life, presumably lack of fellowship must be death, which raises the grim spectre of road deaths and the very real danger inherent in cycling on roads that are not fit for shared use and a motoring culture of resentment towards cyclists. Renshaw drew attention to the sinking feeling provoked by collections of flowers at the sides of roads commemorating those killed, comparing these to plaques installed by cycling clubs that commemorate hill climbs. This tension around cycling as promoted on the one hand and resented on the other was cited by Thurston, who went on to discuss how the very idea of a ‘cycling culture’ indicates a ‘sub culture’. This is a problem, because in order for cycling to be reasonably safe it has to be accepted as a form of transport integral to urban infrastructure, rather than a specialist hobby.

It is clear that both Renshaw and Thurston are deeply invested in cycling both as a form of transport and as a culture of fellowship, however they were also careful to acknowledge that this can engender a kind of elitism. Renshaw raised the issue of how cycling infrastructure is so confusing and disjointed that, even with the best of intentions, it is difficult to navigate for beginners. I’m sure that every city has instances of cycle paths that run directly into walls and the like. There are also the practical issues of protecting a bike from bad weather or arriving at work sweaty and dishevelled after a cycling commute; concerns that can only be addressed by a paradigm shift in how we consider cycling within everyday life. This was acknowledged and expanded on by Thurston, who cautioned against the temptation to replace infrastructure with training, emphasising that coping mechanisms developed by cyclists in order to survive on overcrowded, hostile roads do not constitute solutions. It is valuable to articulate these points in the context of The Expanded City because we are in the rare position of having the opportunity to question the ways that, as Thurston outlined, motoring is essentially subsidised by the rest of society in the form of parking that uses up valuable public space.

Watch a film of the event.

Gavin Renshaw

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Expanded City Perspectives: Artist Gavin Renshaw

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At first glance, Gavin Renshaw‘s contribution to The Expanded City is the one that seems to most directly, and pragmatically relate to the potential for new infrastructure. Renshaw has a longstanding interest in cross-country cycling, using this as a tool within his art practice, and as such is personally invested in cycling infrastructure and advocacy. However, in discussing the project with Renshaw, and following the trajectory from its instinctive, habitual beginnings to the way that it has been instrumentalised towards cycling advocacy, complicates such a simple reading.

Renshaw’s initial project, of documenting distant views of Preston from various points around the periphery stems from a number of long-held concerns. An interest in architecture informs the desire to record how monumental buildings such as museums, churches and football stadiums can be brought to prominence or concealed depending on perspective. The process by which Renshaw produces his photographic images is also related to the method of triangulation, whereby accurate mapping is made possible by measuring the angles from a known point to a fixed baseline. This relates in another way to his interest in local architecture, whereby the viewpoints from which Renshaw’s images are photographed can only be noticed from a cyclist’s perspective, constituting a kind of vernacular triangulation.

This pragmatic use of architectural and natural landmarks stems from Renshaw’s desire to experiment with the different ways that architecture can be utilised and viewed. By depicting the City from a distance, and using its landmarks as triangulation points, the photographic images that Renshaw produces could be seen simply as a by-product of his research. And yet, these images have an aesthetic value beyond the distances and measurable perspectives that they portray. Taken as individual pictures, the stormy skied, or sunlit views of the landscape and city seem to point to different movements and methods in the depiction of landscape. For example, the more dramatic images taken from a high vantage point nod towards the concept of ‘the sublime’ in Romantic painting.

Although, as Renshaw asserted, these images are not meant to be viewed one by one, and it is the whole collection that constitutes the work. When viewed together it becomes clear that whilst each image is technically ‘true’, the perspective in each can completely alter the apparent make-up of the City. Different buildings and parks gain prominence depending on the angle from which they are viewed, and the temptation to settle on a single iconic depiction of the City’s skyline is thwarted. That these images come as a vast set, each framed in a similar way with the skyline centred, is reminiscent of Mischka Henner’s aerial photographs of vast oilfields and feedlots, whereby socio-politically loaded structures are reduced to distant grids.

The notion of the grid is also a useful one in thinking about Renshaw’s project, considering the way in which his photographic images are visually appealing when viewed singularly, but in agglomeration lose their narrative properties. They are also defined by the act of measurement, and depend upon the position of the observer, rather than the artists eye for their composition. As Rosalind Krauss stated in her discussion of the grid in art in 1979; “grids are not only spatial to start with, they are visual structures that explicitly reject a narrative or sequential reading of any kind.” By this definition Renshaw’s collected images when shown or considered together can be seen as a grid, that rejects narrative by proposing an overwhelming multitude of viewpoints that each depict a simultaneously true and illusory portrayal.

The way that this project has developed as part of the Expanded City is described by Renshaw as an ‘offshoot’. Whilst cycling had been an incidental, yet essential part of his initial research, it is the apparent issues associated with traversing the distance from town centre to periphery that has come to the fore as the project has progressed. In it’s next stage Renshaw’s work may take the form of a roadmap for cyclists, including things like road gradients, places to lock up and bike friendly cafes. This is a pragmatic departure from Renshaw’s original project, but is linked in pointing to the practical concerns of research by bike, whilst foregrounding the importance of individual exploration and relating back to the idea of infinite perspectives. The map will constitute a separate but linked work to the photographic series, and how the latter should be presented is yet to be decided.

Lauren Velvick

The Expanded City Symposium, June 2016

As a public introduction to The Expanded City project, a symposium held on June 16 2016 reflected the research concerns of In Certain Places and the commissioned artists through the structure of the event, as well as the content. As we have found through conducting site visits to the areas earmarked for the City Deal housing developments on Preston’s outskirts, a practicality that must be taken into account is the difficulty in reaching these areas using only public transport. One of the commissioned artists, Gavin Renshaw‘s work is partly based around the cultural history of cycling, and he has often made reference to the difficulty in safely reaching the recently opened Guild Loop cycling and walking path, which circles Preston for twenty one miles. Travelling from the centre to the periphery becomes an important issue as we consider how these new developments will relate to the existing citizens and infrastructure of Preston.

As such, the logistical difficulties inherent in the choice of venues and sites for the symposium was a framework around which the day was structured, and was a decidedly positive element, allowing attendees and speakers alike to experience the sites in question first hand, in turn facilitating a deeper appreciation of the topics discussed by the speakers. The day was divided into two halves, with an initial pick-up at Preston train station in a double decker bus, which then went on to transport attendees to the first venue; Woodplumpton and District Club, which sits approximately five miles outside of the city centre. As part of the new housing schemes in question, it has been deemed necessary to provide resources for leisure and culture within the new communities that will be formed. As such, the choice of the Woodplumpton and District Club as the venue for the first, more formal stage of the day is appropriate and poignant. The Woodplumpton and District Club is an old fashioned community club, with facilities for Bowls and Tennis alongside regular activities such as art classes, whist & dominoes and the Women’s Institute. Discussing demographics and regeneration within this context begs the question; what can serve the purpose of spaces like this within new developments?

The two invited speakers that presented during the morning session gave differing but complimentary views on what constitutes a community, of why and how change occurs, and to what extent this can be controlled or directed. First came a presentation from Carolina Caicedo of The Decorators, a multidisciplinary design practice who work with local authorities and public institutions to design and deliver interventions in regeneration areas. These interventions are sensitively tailored to the surrounding community, and often offer a critique of the regeneration in question. Caicedo gave the example of Ridley’s Temporary Restaurant, a project that sought to enliven a struggling market and to facilitate communication between vendors and users. Embedded within the project were certain safeguards, designed to ensure that the restaurant would constitute more than a fashionable eatery that had been parachuted in to a struggling neighbourhood. These included instituting a ‘no bookings’ rule which meant that the limited number of seats would always be open to whoever turned up on the night. Caicedo also emphasized the problems of ill-thought out design in new public spaces, citing a project based around a new public square that had been built in the centre of a development of high-rise apartment buildings, but was underused and desolate.

The pertinent question here seems to be; how can we, in advance, design communal spaces and structures that will actually be used and useful – that will represent something attractive to the local residents. This is where the data and analysis presented by the second speaker, economist Paul Swinney, becomes particularly pertinent. Swinney showed and explained a series of data visualisations that demonstrated, demographically, how differently sized cities are structured, and offered some possible explanations as to why. In considering the areas on the outskirts of cities that are the focus of the Expanded City project, Swinney explained that there is a trade-off between the excitement, resources and employment opportunities of inner city living, compared to the space, peace and safety of the outskirts. He went on to illustrate this point with the example of a young couple who may transfer from choosing a city centre apartment to a suburban house when they decide to start a family. Considering my earlier research into the newly designated employment area to the North East of Preston, where on a sunny weekend I was surprised to find a number of adolescents having chosen this area of relative isolation for their Saturday activities, it is relevant to consider the potential second generation of inhabitants of these new estates, and how they might make use of the outdoor spaces and leisure facilities in unexpected ways.

During this first part of the day Ian Nesbitt and Ruth Levene also presented an extract from their active research project, which has been informed by an earlier practice of collaborative walking and parallel documentation. Nesbitt and Levene deal directly with the question of whether land is public or private, and the points where this differentiation becomes uncertain. Their presentation consisted of a series of photographs taken during their walks, and the reading of extracts from their parallel diaries, written strictly without input from each other. One anecdote neatly illustrated the slightly ludicrous nature of public footpaths, some of which are purposefully blocked, or may not have been used for decades; in trekking along one of these little-used paths Nesbitt and Levene passed a house whose occupant rushed out to greet them, excited that somebody was finally making use of the track.

After the morning session sustenance was provided in the form of a personable pub lunch, and the second half of the day consisted of presentations from each of the remaining artists. The attending Counsellors, local residents and cultural producers once more boarded the double decker bus and were transported to the site of Olivia Keith‘s presentation. Keith’s site specific demonstration outlined her research methods, which involve an openness to chance and serendipity. Keith has been producing large scale, outdoor drawings at sites where older designations meet newer developments, and these are then overlaid with existing and obsolete maps. Keith pointed out the ways in which her observed drawings would match up with the maps underneath in interesting and unexpected ways. This practice also constitutes a way to facilitate conversations with passers-by who live in or make use of these areas, describing how at the meeting of a motorway bridge, country lane and suburb where Keith had chosen for her presentation, she had met a number of multi-generational walkers making a pilgrimage to Bluebell Wood.

Bussed onwards from the North West to North East of Preston we alighted next at my chosen ‘nowhere monument’ that even the Counsellors didn’t seem to have an explanation for. The way in which this de-contextualised wall was reminiscent of a folly or stage set inspired me to instruct the attendees to gather on the oval of grass and wild flowers in between the wall and road to hear a reading linking this area to Robert Smithson’s Passaic, New Jersey. This site is oddly atmospheric, with a scale that lurches between human and industrial amongst the jumble of warehouses and chain cafes.

Finally, we headed further East still for a roadside presentation from Gavin Renshaw. This site was decidedly rural, with encroaching hedgerows and a lack of pavements. Following our fluorescent jacketed leader we were led single file to a point where the whole of Preston City Centre is observable in the far distance. This capacity to visually encompass a large and complex site from a distance is an important concern for Renshaw, and is interlinked with his interest in the activity and cultural history of cycling. He spoke of how, from this distance it is possible to take a technically true impression of the City, but one that is also illusory, bringing wooded areas together in distant perspective when in reality they are isolated.

This focus on the nature of representation is a relevant strand that ran through each of the presentations given throughout the day. Nesbitt, Levene and Keith have demonstrated an interest in the disunity between bureaucratic visualisation of a place, and a more intuitive form of mapping based around memory and cultural history. Similarly, the earlier presentations from Carolina Caicedo and Paul Swinney point to the ways in which data and forward planning are useful, but can come unstuck in presenting an overly simplistic and static view of a place and its inhabitants.

Lauren Velvick