Over two years artist Kristin Luke is collaborating with the residents of Tre Cwm housing estate in Llandudno, North Wales, on The Wall Is __, a long-term programme of activities and an artwork for the main boundary wall of the estate. Approaching this as a non-hierarchical learning experience, they will decide together how they would like the project to contribute to and reflect their community, both distinct from and connected to the rest of Llandudno. Through activities that encourage the sharing of stories, histories, and celebrate residents’ expertise and individual and collective identities, the project addresses these questions: Can the wall be something to be proud of? What message should it tell people coming in and out of Llandudno along one of its main arteries? What are the stories, objects, and images that will bring this wall to life? Can residents learn about and connect with each other from participating in the project?
The project combines positive elements such as trust building, celebration, and collaboration, with ethical complexities. It raises the impossibility of one person constructing a unified narrative about a community of 800 people, of capturing it all, of knowing all of the community, of being capable of constructing an accurate reflection. However, the project’s two year duration means there is time to cultivate, to think about it as an ecology, to not have to tell a linear story that progresses steadily. Connections are made with individuals, sometimes big groups come together, sometimes branches shoot out and side projects are developed. It grows in a multitude of directions.
Another complexity is the project’s interactions with social workers, housing associations, employment agencies, secondary schools, local government and police. It borrows from these sectors, but cannot offer expertise in any of them. Statistics and residents’ accounts have indicated that drugs, violence, poverty, and unemployment are present on the estate. These aspects of estate life are therefore also present in The Wall Is _, but it feels like a form of violence in itself for the project to portend to be able to ‘fix’ these issues, or to try and extract these isolated parts of people’s lives to turn them into a story or spectacle for the sake of an art project. There are a thousand other facets of life, which are maybe not so spectacular, but which are just as demanding of people’s attention - working until midnight salt-gritting Snowdonia’s icy roads, taking care of children that keep getting sick, singing at a local talent contest, producing the next scifi Youtube video, training as a kitchen porter.
There are some less visible and quieter sides to the project. Not all of it has a spectator. Not all residents are going to want to participate in something that looks 'political.' Not all residents feel comfortable sharing their issues, or speaking publicly, nor do they want to lend themselves to being photographed for someone else’s project. Some are just looking for gentle invitations to get involved and establish relationships. This can be hard to reconcile with how the project must also appear to a wider public, and it complicates the role of a website, as it necessarily creates an image of socially engaged art.
We also run into other challenges: the project is happening alongside the wider regeneration of a housing estate, a model for collaboration tied to the broader neoliberal agenda of regeneration as the legacy of Thatcher. The instrumentalisation of artists and the marketisation of socially engaged art practices are facets of this agenda, and confronting this from within the project has its own set of contradictions, but also opportunities for up-close insights.
The reason why the project can function in the midst of these complexities is not because it creates spectacles, but because it lets empowerment, communality, and self-representation develop through trust and relationship building, over an extended time. It carves out a space for residents to try out different mindsets about their neighbourhood - to practise science-fictional thought, to be a representative of and speak publicly about their community, to consider their home as a place of historical and cultural significance, to extend the psychological boundaries of the estate to include a mountain, flora and fauna, and an ancient watchtower, and to have a reason to meet their neighbours.
The Wall Is __ came about through a collaboration between Culture Action Llandudno, Cartrefi Conwy and North Wales Housing Association. It is in partnership with Ty Llywelyn Community Centre and Mostyn Gallery and funded by Paul Hamlyn Foundation and Llandudno Town Council. It is produced by Ffiwsar.
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