…the life of place and what it means to us depends not simply on its physical form, but on what we do and experience there. In the triangle formed by Artists, Builders, Performers… we seek a quality which will be the catalyst for better art, better building and thereby a better culture and environment for people. Our name for the search for this quality is “House”.House matters newsletter No1 – August 1993
Welfare State International (WSI)
Over dinner one evening during the ‘Funerals – and How to Make Them More Personal’ course at Barhaugh Hall, I got round to having a catch up conversation with John Fox, artistic director of Welfare State, about; what they were doing. what People In Common had been doing, what I was doing; the Hardwood Centre and the building of the Segal Shed at Greenspace.that I was working on at the time. John was intrigued by the whole Walter Segal story and how it chimed with the work they were starting to do at their base in Ulverston at The Ellers.
He told of how he felt that they wasted large amounts of materials on their big open air gigs that surely could be reused somehow afterwards to build something useful – we dreamed up an after dinner fantasy where there could be the ceremonial construction of an actual house as part of a performance – in the way that troops build big structures at the Edinburgh Tattoo – and then the house could be donated to a homeless charity… Which had echoes of the Segal house built as part of the 1988 Glasgow Garden Festival and then moved ‘lock, stock & roof’ to the Monimail Tower Project in Fife when the festival finished. The upshot of the conversation was that John invited me over to Ulverston to see what they were doing and I invited them to come over to Altham to visit us.
The WSI base at The Ellers in Ulverston was an old Victorian National School building that had seen better days. Having been used variously over the years as a wartime army billet, labour exchange, motorway map store, post office garage and electronics factory before it had become the office, workshop, costume store, rehearsal space and touring base for Welfare State. The ‘HOUSE’ project was conceived as a long term artist led project that would eventually transform the building into ‘A Centre for Celebration’.
… House provides a focus for many related projects. In the manner of a performance/sculpture we will convert and rebuild our existing base. With new studios, rehearsal space, living rooms, offices and small terraces for occasional events and concerts, we will create a functional base, a prototype, a symbolic environment and total organic art work…
WSI Publicity quoted in eyes on stalks – John fox
…The building of House will be an extensive event in itself, but the accompanying ceremonies of orientation, foundation laying, roofing, hearth firing and opening etc, will provide further opportunities for demonstrating new vernacular rituals in performance…
Over the following few months there followed what I can only really describe as a slow courtship rather than any sort of formal interview process. I attended a few artists meetings at the Ellers. Getting a chance to see the work that they had already started; taking the concrete capping off the town beck that ran through the site and creating a storytelling garden. After a visit to The Mill by WSI’s administrator and Peter Wilshaw, Peter volunteered on the Greenspace Segal Shed project helping to put the turf roof on. And in the summer of ’94 I was invited to work with the company on the finale for the ‘On The Street’ project in Bolton.
I worked with long time WSI visual artist Caroline Menis and Pyrotechnic & welding wiz Dougie Nicholson of External Combustion to build a 25ft high mobile sculptural tower on a transit van chassis that would be pushed along the street by members of the local rugby team. It was part a tower to launch fireworks from for the final bit of the day long event, part Indian juggernaut roaming the street with on board sound system and accompanying dancers, and part an attempt at a HOUSE project prototype to see if you could upcycle materials from a performance into a building project later.
On The Street culminated in a day long festival that took place over the whole mile long length of Eskrick Street in Bolton following months of work in the community by a WSI team led by Hilary Hughes and David Rennie. I came in for the last couple of weeks along with other artists and performers to work on the final day event. Which included; a carpet stretching the whole a mile long length of the street made by Wendy Meadley, poems delivered to doorsteps first thing in the morning sealed in milk bottles, a posse of female street cleaners led by Betty Buffer, aka Susan Clarke, community drumming bands, Martin Brockman’s sculptural clay kiln, and half of the tower that I had been working on. It was too windy on the day to put the top half of the tower up. So we went out on the street with just the base pushed along by half a dozen members of the local rugby team – still putting the finishing touches to the cut out decoration on the sides. Silhouettes of elephants and dancers being cut out ‘live’ with a jigsaw by Peter Wilishaw who then handed the little elephant cut-outs to the entranced children who were following us as we processed along to a soundtrack of music pounding out.from our on board sound system.
We got the tower/juggernaut down to the far end of the street and drew a crowd of predominantly Asian children out of the small terraced houses. At which point we lost the rugby crew to the pub and ended up being pushed back up the hill by an excited gang of small children. Later we erected the top half of the tower on the local playing field for the firework finale.
The magic of being involved in this sort of event as a WSI worker is in the small details of team work in often demanding circumstances – asked at a team meeting a few days before the event if there was anything I thought I might need on the day I mentioned that “If it’s windy we might need guy ropes on the tower.” A request that had slipped my mind until dusk on the day precariously perched at the top of a rickty15ft wooden tower clamping a pyrotechnic rig on, a voice shouted “Catch!” and a rope flew through the fading light into my free hand. (Thank you Gavin Lewery/Hillary Hughes.) I think it was at that precise moment that my romance with WSI was sealed. We secured the tower and it formed the centre piece of the firework display that ending the festival..
HOUSE was an ambitious attempt to apply the artist-led-community-engaged ethos of WSI to a construction project. That it was conceived as taking place over 5 or 6 years gave time to do things that most building projects never have the chance to. For starters there was time to just explore the existing site and building. To research it’s history and to honour it’s past uses and users. Something I realise that we had sort of done in an ad-hoc unstructured way with The Mill at Altham. With the Ellers, and the concept of the whole process being an art work / performance opportunity,using some of the company’s arts funding it was possible to involve local people who had been pupils when it had been a school. To capture their memories and publish them in a small book called Capsule, and organise a ‘school trip’ on the Coniston steamer.
The next phase of HOUSE was to look to do something about the large steel frame / cement asbestos clad post office garage that blocked the access to both the old school playground and the newly created garden and storytelling area at the rear of the building. The garage was sold to a local farmer on the basis that he removed it. We continued to explore the site with the erection of a temporary architectural intervention. Candlehouse tower, by Max Rosin, Dan Fox, Hannah Fox & Jo Pocock,, was built partly to see how appropriate a permanent tower would be on the site and quite where it might be situated – in the guise of a giant sculptural music box.that formed the centre piece for a series of musical performances.
After much discussion about what would be an appropriate replacement for the garage/workshop. Should it be a ‘modernist’ Segal style self-build extension? Which felt slightly incongruous on back of a stone built Victorian School. In the end through a combination of researching local South Lakeland vernacular building methods and styles, and my background in oak timber framing we decide that for one long hot summer HOUSE would become BARN.