I’m very excited to be Super Slow Way’s critical friend. I have been critical of Creative People and Places in the past but have always been intrigued by Super Slow Way – its team and its approach to programming. This is the first blog post about my experiences.
A PROPERLY CRITICAL CRITICAL FRIEND
Super Slow Way is a Creative People and Places project in Pennine Lancashire. Its work traverses the Leeds and Liverpool Canal from Blackburn to Pendle. The canal used to be the main artery for one of the UK’s most important places for textile production and manufacture. Now it’s quieter: much of the industry gone, and though not forgotten, repurposed. Mills have been demolished and regenerated, but what of the communities that formed the area’s warps and wefts?
The slow, slow, quick, quick, slow of textile decline is over. Can art bring the once-proud mill towns that scatter valley sides and canal banks back new-found creativity and weave communities together around cultural activity? The canal’s transition from industrial “Super Highway” to “Information Super Highway” is what informs Super Slow Way’s programming. Earlier in my life, I worked with the remnants of Lancashire’s textile and garment manufacturers, driving down prices, taking generations of skills and knowledge overseas in the process. I was one of those who pulled the last threads of industry from this place. Much of what I earnt went on putting on raves and going to raves, some in Blackburn. This is my connection. A past that still haunts me. It informs my practice today. That is what brought me back to this place and to these people.
I first met up with Laurie, Jenny, Kate and the rest of the Super Slow Way team at the end of January. Snow like cotton on fell tops, though memories of these places not forgotten. The project’s HQ warm and inviting. A regenerated space with views of the canal, Burnley and the hills beyond. We talk about Creative People and Places, about my criticisms of the structure rather than individual projects, about past successes and frustrations, and about future plans.
Super Slow Way have a very impressive back catalogue of projects and an equally adventurous programming agenda for the coming year and beyond. The team’s passionately extensive programming is almost overwhelming. The quality of many of the projects – past, present and future – exceptionally high. Unlike many Creative People and Places projects, Super Slow Way is committed to “radical and ambitious art programming” and, whilst it is committed to working with local people to develop the programme, it is clear the team are also dedicated to ensuring that each project achieves as strong an aesthetic and a sense of artistic authenticity that is akin to that found elsewhere in the contemporary art world. This makes Super Slow Way seem somewhat different from other Creative People and Places projects. There is a clear and open curatorial ambition here of the sort more usually found in contemporary art galleries, large biennials and large-scale public art projects.
The team are unafraid of bringing artists from around the globe to Pennine Lancashire, many of them internationally recognised. And, whilst Super Slow Way, like all Creative People and Places projects, are primarily commissioned to engage new audiences and encourage new participants in arts and culture in what Arts Council England term “areas of low engagement”, it does so in a way that does not seem to skimp on aesthetic qualities and artistic credibility.
This is interesting to me. I do not believe that all Creative People and Places projects should adopt an appropriated form of “community arts” practice (or a participatory arts practice, or a socially engaged art practice, or whatever) as has been suggested. These projects shouldn’t need to adopt such cliched and inappropriate monikers. Creative People and Places has a specific role and that does not mean artistic standards should be any less than the best expected by audiences and participants in areas of high arts engagement. It does not need to dress itself and its projects up as a watered-down version of cultural democracy.
Super Slow Way adopts the spirit of action research that supposedly drives the Creative People and Places initiative. It does so in a way that offers challenging contemporary arts programming to people from a wide range of cultures living in a place that’s desperately proud of its past. For me, that’s interesting and I want to know more about how the team, the artists they commission, the people they work with, and the places in which they work. I want to know how Super Slow Way fits into the wider Creative People and Places network. I want to be involved, to be supportive, to be critical.
Jenny said Super Slow Way were looking for a “properly critical critical friend”. I liked that idea. So here I am: a properly critical critical friend. I’ll be working with the project over the next year and will be visiting, observing, participating, talking to artists and people, and discussing what I come across as I go. I’ll also be writing a series of blogs throughout the year and hope to film some interviews and conversations with some of the team as the critical friend role progresses. My next visit is in March and I’m very much looking forward to visiting some projects then.