This Summer Andy Abbott was commissioned by Wakefield Arts Partnership to undertake a research and engagement project across the Wakefield district focusing on its hidden and under appreciated aspects. In this blog post he relays his experiences and reflections.
My proposal was to create a travelling pyramid that appeared at events and places across the district. The pyramid would act as a vessel for gathering information and anecdotes from people as well as displaying their contributions. The pyramid was called the Centre for Dark Matter – referencing Gregory Sholette’s writing on the ‘hidden mass’ of informal cultural activity that holds everything together.
As an artist I had undertaken similar projects in other Northern towns and cities (my Festival of Pastimes series in Hull, Leeds, Stoke-on-Trent, Blackburn, Oldham and Rochdale plus the Bradford-based Guided Goitside with the art collective Black Dogs) and I’ve long been fascinated with independent, do-it-yourself, and amateur activity as well as the role alternative and radical histories have in placemaking.
Although I’ve been an occasional visitor to Wakefield – mostly through my connections with its DIY and punk music scenes – it wasn’t a place I was overly familiar with so I was excited by the opportunity to learn more about its hidden aspects.
Uncovering Hidden Wakefield
The project began by gathering contributions through market research style engagements with the newly formed Dark Matter team at Unity Works Comic Convention and online which, alongside some of my own research and visits around the district, provided the initial contents for the pyramid.
To maximise the number and type of events at which the pyramid could appear I opted for a modular structure made from collapsible card boxes decorated with a simple yet eye-melting design by Ben Holden who had come up with the striking look of the project. The design incorporated special codes so that the pyramid acted as a digital canvas for an Augmented Reality experience. Viewing it through an iPad or smartphone allowed you to see inside.
The contents of the pyramid were constellations that represented people, groups or events from Wakefield’s past, present and future that people thought deserved more recognition or that were special to them. After browsing the contents of the pyramid visitors were asked what they would put inside and these contributions were included in future appearances.
The Wakefield Centre for Dark Matter and team appeared at The Hepworth family day, Ackworth Chilli Festival, National Coal Mining Museum, Nostell Priory, Castleford Queens Mill, Pontefract Museum, and Altofts and Lightwaves Literature Festivals. I also did smaller scale workshops and interventions at Lofthouse Grange dementia care home and as part of the Wakefield Art Walk. In total we reached around 2800 people with the project and had conversations with over 600.
The pyramid proved an effective device for facilitating deep and rich conversation about Wakefield. Passers-by were able to learn a bit about the area by browsing the contents. This also helped jog their memories or prompt them to think about their relationship with the area. The discussion also happened online using Twitter and Facebook posts as well as the Wakefield Arts Partnership website.
Contributions ranged from historic figures like Charles Waterton (the pioneering conservationist), John Harrison (inventor of the marine chronometer) and Barbara Hepworth; local celebs like Karen Dews (kickboxing champion) and Kate Taylor (Wakefield historian and writer); events like Gawthorpe Coal Race, the Rugby League ‘Watersplash Final’ of 1968 (at which Wakefield’s Don Fox missed a conversion in the last minute of the game), the quickly-shut-down Finger in a Matchbox rave at Thornes Park in the early 90s, and the Community Iftar held by Wakefield City of Sanctuary earlier this year; groups like Pontefract Calligraphers, Elementals Moot (a meeting for modern pagans accessible to all) and Bygone Bikes (vintage bicycle enthusiasts); places like Horbury Lagoon, The Heronry, Pugneys Country Park, and Empire Drive Thru Fish and Chip restaurant; and organisations and venues like Wakefield Hospice, the Mental Health Museum and the forthcoming West Yorkshire History Centre.
Over 100 of the contributions were turned into entries for the Centre for Dark Matter. Each was represented by a constellation with a short description narrated by poet Kirsty Taylor. These have been archived as an online gallery made by One to One Development Trust at www.darkmattercente.com.
As the engagements went on I was able to start to get a better sense of what ‘Hidden Wakefield’ was. It became clear that the project wasn’t so much about secret things no one else knew about so much as people’s particular relationship to Wakefield’s past, present and future.
The research started to build a picture of a much more rural, caring, relaxing and regenerative place than mainstream opinion about Wakefield might suggest. I was surprised by the regular mention of country parks, wildlife, supportive groups and voluntary organisations. Even the anecdotes about the historic Wakefield Police’s heavy-handed tactics were described to me as ‘tough love’. I wonder whether this organic, grassroots mutual care and support has been a necessary response to the decimation and damage communities suffered through the decline of the mining industries that were once the beating heart of the district.
Likewise I picked up on a deep-seated respect for the heritage and past of Wakefield where generations of families had been in the same area, but also a tradition of welcoming new arrivals – whether that was the Irish navis, Scottish and Eastern European miners and more recent migrants from the Indian subcontinent and Middle East. The practice of solidarity and community organising honed by Trade Unions in the district has most recently been applied to antiracist campaigning and migrant support actions from We Are Wakefield and the initiative to become a recognised City of Sanctuary.
The people of Wakefield’s ability to come together in the face of adversity and create something new was embodied in some of the venues that hosted the Centre for Dark Matter. Queen’s Mill in Castleford, The Brig in Altofts and Lightwaves Community Centre were initiatives by local residents, groups and community activists to make collective use of valued facilities that were under threat of closure. The results include a Heritage Trust run flour mill; a community library housed in a room of a former Working Men’s club; and arts festivals and youth employment advisory services in a repurposed leisure centre. Without excusing the circumstances that have led to these unusual partnerships, they have had the benefit of creating a space where people with a broad range of backgrounds, interests, ages and faiths encounter and work together.
There was also a playful, innovative, creative and sometimes bizarre and naughty side to Wakefield that came through in conversations about Wakefield as the ‘Merrie City’ in the 18th Century, Holyground Records (the ‘UK if not the world’s first independent recording label and studio’) and Bretton Hall College in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Nostell Free Festival in the ‘80s, The Castleford-based Yorkshire Art Circus which ran for nearly 30 years, Heppy’s club and its Fish and Strip nights, the dance and rave scenes in the ‘90s and the more recent DIY and independent music and arts scenes that have produced Long Division festival, Philophobia record label, Wakefield Westgate Studios and Crux Art Space. The chilli eating competition as part of the Ackworth Chilli Festival at First Impressions Garden Centre was one of the highlights of my year. All the participants were under 16. The competition was won by Neve (pictured above) who put in a particularly brave performance.
This is just a glimpse of the fascinating conversations and contributions people brought to the Centre for Dark Matter. The best were often personal and very specific to that person or group and with these, of which there were many, it felt like the conversation became an end in itself rather than an exercise in gathering data. Still, in order to move to the next stage of the project I began to put the contributions into rough categories of Nature, Heritage, Invention and Care that I felt accommodated the range of material.
Another notable trend from the engagements was that people were more comfortable and willing to talk about the past and present of Wakefield rather than its future. Not only did we receive a greater number of contributions about Wakefield’s history but in general people were visibly more animated and verbose about the past than the future – or even the present – of the district. This reluctance to think freely and positively about the yet-to-be is not exclusive to Wakefield. Times are hard, especially in those many cities and towns who exist in the shadow of past achievements and seemingly more successful neighbours. For these places it’s tempting to look through rose tinted glasses at greener pastures as I’ve experienced living in Leeds and Bradford.
It did lead me to thinking, however, about how I could present the fascinating research that had come from the people of Wakefield back to them in a way that would encourage a playful contemplation of the future. I became interested in the astrological and cosmological aspects of the project that so far I had only used for metaphorical and aesthetic purposes. One theory about pyramids is that they were aligned with the stars and used to watch the night sky. This prompted me to create a Wakefield Zodiac using some of the entries and material gathered by the Centre for Dark Matter.
I also became interested in the language of divination, particularly that used in horoscopes, and how it could be played against the more perfunctory tone of the entries in the pyramid. I began splicing existing horoscope texts with the text and content of the Dark Matter Centre to create a series of Wakefield Zodiac Horoscopes. These became a print designed by Ben Holden and were the base material for a composition for voices and synthesizer.
I also made the contributions to the Wakefield Centre for Dark Matter into a deck of cards that could be used for ‘education, play or divination’. The Cards for Dark Matter is a 78 card deck, each with a person, group, place, event or organisation from Wakefield’s past, present and future, divided into suites including ‘Nature’, ‘Care’, ‘Heritage’ and ‘Invention’. The deck also includes trump cards and Charles Waterton as the Fool as a nod to the stories I was told about his many pranks.
As luck or fortune would have it one of the groups I had come across early on the research, Elementals Moot, were holding a session on divination and they kindly invited me along. I was treated to my first ever tarot reading which I found an unexpectedly profound experience. I was inspired to share this in some form through the project.
I presented the outcomes at the Wakefield Art Walk on 30th November. The Wakefield Zodiac print was a free giveaway available to pick up at various venues on the walk. I performed the Wakefield Zodiac composition as part of the Unity Words event at Unity Works with Toria Garbutt, Kirsty Taylor and Jacqui Wicks as the voices. Divination games using the Cards for Dark Matter were played at The Prince Albert pub in Wakefield Westgate Studios and at the Wakefield Beer Exchange.
I was glad that the divination cards were especially well received. When I had had my reading by Krystal at Elementals Moot I enjoyed the candid way in which the reading was performed and the open-ended and subjective way in which the cards could be read. With the Cards for Dark Matter we took care to explain that the deck was not a real tarot set nor were our readers – artists Alice Withers and Lucy Courtney-Clegg – trained. The cards, however, still acted as an effective lens through which participants could think about and reflect on their future. It was gratifying to hear that people had meaningful experiences through the interaction and that this may in some small way help them approach unknowable times more positively. Or, less grandiosely, that they would make good stocking fillers for their Wakefieldian friends and family!
The Wakefield Arts Partnership received the project positively and felt it had fulfilled their overall aim to creatively engage Wakefield communities in a dialogue about place – stimulating and gathering the sharing of information and stories that highlight local distinctiveness. The longer-term aim of the commission was to put the partnership in a position to take forward the creation of an Alternative Guide to Wakefield and they felt that the outcomes of the Wakefield Centre for Dark Matter can influence or feed into that. It also helped test new ways to engage residents and visitors and try out a district-wide, collaborative working method.
One of my own aims with the research and engagement around Hidden Wakefield was to learn more about the district, its histories and people with a particular focus on lesser-heard voices and narratives. What I uncovered reminded me what ‘alternative’ or ‘underground’ activity could be. It’s not necessarily all radical counter-cultural activity and activism – although Wakefield has its fair share of this – but includes the innocuous and everyday too. I found the revealing aspect of Wakefield was less the things, places and events themselves but more in the manner in which people related to these. In this way the project went towards proving the adage that ‘it’s the people that make the place’.
There were many conversations, stories, people and places that I only scratched the surface of and deserve fuller exploration. These included the history of independent music in Wakefield; the waves of migration that have formed the city and district; the impact that Bretton Hall College has had on the cultural landscape of Wakefield; and the role that young people will have in shaping the district and how space and resources can be made available to help this.
So I hope there are opportunities to be able to continue with some of this. One of the steering group members asked me, ‘What do you think it would be like to live in Wakefield now you’ve started to see its hidden side?’ It’s impossible to predict but, if I found myself there, I reckon there’d be a welcoming and caring community to be part of and plenty more to do, explore and uncover.
Thanks to the Dark Matter engagement team (Alex Boots, Yvonne Carmichael, Lucy Courtney-Clegg, Nasra Hussen, Jack Lynch, Finlay MacTaggart, Bryony Pritchard, Josie Tothill, Alice Withers and Rose Wobbaka); Ben Holden for the design; Lucy Barker for the documentation; Andy Campbell and Judi Alston at One To One Development Trust for the website; Toria Garbutt, Kirsty Taylor and Jacqui Wicks for the voices; all the venues and staff that hosted the engagements and outcomes; Wakefield Arts Partnership and Beam for the opportunity; and especially all the individuals, groups and organisations that contributed material or took part in conversations around Hidden Wakefield.
Commissioned by Beam on behalf of Wakefield Arts Partnership and supported by Arts Council England through Beam’s ‘Arts in Place’ programme.
Images and text copyright Andy Abbott.