A collection of door knobs. Unclaimed mail. An ironing board. Through recording the evacuation of one Lancashire community, finds Steve Millington, the artist William Titley has made permanent a series of internal displacements, and the exposed the true meaning of “placelessness”…
by Dr Steve Millington
Yi Fun Tuan established the term “topophilia” in the 1970s. An awkward word, but it describes an emotion we all share, a deep attachment to place. We might express this through love for one’s country or perhaps through civic pride, but our strongest bonds are to ordinary places connecting our everyday habits and routines, what we might call home.
Home is perhaps the most important place in our lives. Beyond basic human needs of shelter and security, home is ideally a place where we can escape, be ourselves, find comfort, rest, experiment, create, laugh, dance, without too much concern about what others might think. Here we build and maintain the social relations necessary to support a sense of belonging considered essential for well-being and happiness. We only have to imagine the plight of millions of refugees who have had to leave their homes, neighbourhoods, the places where they were born, schooled, worked, ate, played, to realise how our lives might quickly untangle into a precarious state. Feeling ‘out of place’, feeling that you don’t belong can be soul destroying.
“Demolition Street provides a poignant exploration of a place that has been lost”
Moving home, we know is highly stressful, but the prospect of losing your home provokes great fear, anxiety, and loss. Artist William Titley’s ongoing project Demolition Street explores and documents the lives of ordinary people in Colne, Lancashire, where an entire street of private houses, specifically Bright Street, was demolished in anticipation of an urban regeneration scheme that never happened. To a casual observer, Bright Street was nothing special, part of a familiar Lancashire landscape of rising terraced streets. But, through photographs, video, interviews and artefacts collected from vacated properties since 2005, Demolition Street provides a poignant exploration of a place that has been lost.
The work captures the worn patina of emptied houses, the shifting patterns of shadow as the sun sweeps across the fading paint on a wall, or shimmers through a now dirtied and forgotten window. There are absent walls, windows, absent roofs, interiors rendered exterior. Boarded up windows which no longer offer sunlight or external views. Demolition Street reveals a landscape littered with found objects, material glimpses into past lives, offering a contemporary archaeology of a former working class community, unveiling the sediments of a lost landscape.
Despite the hillside location of Bright Street, views from even the upper floors offered little perspective on the town or the Pennines. Often what is only visible from the windows of one house are the houses on the opposite side of the street. One might find this claustrophobic, but Titley provides smaller scale perspectives, views from eye holes or forgotten window frames to reveal how the physical properties of the terraced street fostered intimacy and security. Having eyes on the street creates informal surveillance, a facet celebrated by the influential activist Jane Jacobs, whose ideas continue to resonate in city planning. The many doors on the street provide multiple entrances and exits, people coming and going, as neighbours perform a daily street ballet right outside the front door.
By accident, Victorian terraces generated communities that looked on, but also out for each other, clocking suspicious characters, children playing out secure under a neighbourhood gaze, a community that co-produces neighbourly behaviour. Some might find this environment, where everybody knows each other’s business, suffocating, but residents of Bright Street clearly lament their lost neighbours. Titley’s video installations, for example, separate the resident’s voices from the pauses between their sentences, presenting a set of talking heads juxtaposed against silences and breaths capturing “rhythms of breathing and facial expressions” as they reflect on the past and the anticipated future post-demolition.
“Beyond the wasted time, effort and public resource, most importantly, John’s home was blighted”
The themes of abandonment, dislocation and power resonate strongly with ideas in geography about how communities are made and transformed through ordinary place making strategies, but also alerts us to the institutional challenges faced by people subject to seemingly arbitrary planning decisions. John, a former resident for instance, talks about how he bought his house, and together with a neighbour applied to the local authority for a grant of £13,000 to improve their properties, electrics, damp proofing etc., only for a few years later to discover their properties, along with the rest of the street, were earmarked for demolition by the same authority. Beyond the wasted time, effort and public resource, most importantly, John’s home was blighted.
Demolition Street chimes with the broader anxiety about the loss of this particular form of working class housing, the two-up two-down terrace. Much of this housing stock from 19th and early 20th century was subject to mass clearance in the 1950s and 60s, where whole neighbourhoods were redlined by planners, subject to Compulsory Purchase Orders and demolished, and families relocated to new modernist estates and blocks of flats often without consultation or sufficient compensation. Clearly much of this housing was well below modern standards, but the terraced housing that remained was often good quality and today provides a step onto the housing market for many families in a climate where affordable homes are in short supply.
Latterly, however, the government’s Housing Market Renewal (HMR) scheme has led to further demolition of what, for many, are solid homes in sustainable communities. Nevertheless, under the auspices of urban “regeneration”, vast swathes of terraced streets have become subject to “renewal” in places like Liverpool, Salford, and Sunderland, including Colne.
When communities are forced to relocate, they lose an embedded connection to the familiar. At first, their new neighbourhoods will seem strange and it takes time to overcome what geographers call “displacement anxiety”. Well-worn paths between home and work have to be rediscovered. We eventually work this out through the reiteration of everyday practices. It is a journey involving mistakes, exploration until we establish patterns and routines where we feel comfortable, or feel at home.
“To you, these are the places where you might have carved the name of your first lover or smoked your first cigarette”
Along these routes and pathways, ordinary objects, such as a park bench or a bus shelter, which might appear banal to a stranger, become infused with meaning. To you, these are the places where you might have carved the name of your first lover or smoked your first cigarette. When the landscape changes suddenly, our connection to that place is fundamentally altered. Perhaps we have learnt little from the experiences of mass redevelopment in the 1960s, although at least then there was a utopian desire to improve the lives of ordinary folk. However, top-down approaches to planning continue to fail to acknowledge the community bonds and social networks that arise in established neighbourhoods. It is a well-worn cliché that you can destroy a community overnight, but it takes decades to build one.
Dislocation not only affects our external geographies, it also causes an internal dislocation as we have to pack, unpack and rearrange the stuff in our homes. Other than functional items, we decorate our houses with stuff that means something to us, photos, artefacts and mementoes, just things we collect, store or put on display. We use these material items of everyday life to structure both time and space. They are hooks upon which we hang fond memories, childhood, and moments marking out key life stages; births, graduations, marriages, which flow into our sense of self and identity. We bundle this life clutter into homes, on walls, in drawers, cupboards, attics, cellars, sheds. But when moving home it becomes necessary to sort and sift out all this matter, to have a clearout and perhaps re-evaluate our clutter, before facing a myriad of dilemmas in our new home, to find new spaces to put stuff in.
The ordering of stuff also generates a sense of character, representing a unique customisation of domestic space, which on first glance might appear ordinary if not banal. On Bright Street, however, an expedition into Tony’s cellar unexpectedly reveals a carcass of a 1970s Ford Capri. The remnants and artefacts of this cluttered past re-emerge within Demolition Street and are put on display. A colourful ashtray hosting the remains of the last cigarette smoked in the house (above). A collection of door knobs through the ages marking shifting eras of style, design and taste. Unclaimed mail. An ironing board, a washing up bowl, a salvaged loft hatch replete with attached smoke alarm, together with other found objects including stuff from the artist’s own past.
Another geographer from the 1970s, Ted Relph, introduced the term “placelessness”, to refer to the eradication of vernacular style and design, or what we might term in Britain as clone towns: the homogenisation of places through the overlaying of same corporate brands on every high street or swathes of identikit housing, together with a proliferation of blandscapes, motorway services, shopping malls or airport departure lounges — what Marc Augé calls “non-places”. The eradication of a terraced street like Bright Street perhaps symbolises an eradication of a unique Northern working class identity; of communities that no longer fit into a neoliberal market obsessed society.
This essay was written by Dr Steve Millington in response to his conversations with artist William Titley, which began at a Practising Place event in Manchester in 2015 and can be viewed online here.
This text forms part of a series of essays, commissioned jointly by In Certain Places and The Double Negative, which has been developed through Practising Place – an ongoing programme of conversations, designed to examine the relationship between art practice and place. Each event is hosted at a different across the country and explores a specific aspect of place by bringing artists together with other researchers who share a common area of interest.
Practising Place is part of In Certain Places – a programme of artistic interventions and events based in the School of Art, Design and Fashion at the University of Central Lancashire. For more information visit incertainplaces.org.
William Titley is an artist and Co-Director/Founder of In-Situ: a non-profit arts organisation based in East Lancashire. His work plays on ideas around spatial ownership, including notions of home, borders, and socio-cultural spaces; identifying and inhabiting a position in-between spaces from which he can engage with communities, the environment and place. From local histories, digital media and hybrid landscapes to political boundaries, social situations and local cultures, his work uncovers aspects of environments, cultures and a sense of place. Projects have included curating an artistic exchange between Lancashire and Lahore, capturing feral pigeons in Coney Island NYC, and an all-night Northern Soul event in Manchester’s Victoria Baths. William is also a lecturer in Fine Art at the University of Central Lancashire.
Dr Steve Millington is a Senior Fellow of the Institute of Place Management and a Senior Lecturer in Human Geography at Manchester Metropolitan University. He is co-author of two edited collections, Cosmopolitan Urbanism and Spaces of Vernacular Creativity: Rethinking the Cultural Economy, both published by Routledge. His recent research explores the relationship between illumination and place, focusing on household Christmas light displays and Blackpool Illuminations, work that formed the subject of an episode of BBC Radio Four’s Thinking Allowed. Previous research has examined football fan culture, but more recently he has been working on an ESRC project examining the vitality and vibrancy of UK High Streets. Steve is a Trustee of the Manchester Geographical Society, and a Director of Institute of Place Management’s Special Interest Group for Geography and Planning.
Demolition Street is a collection of audio-visual artworks from William Titley’s personal archives, informed by a real life situation on Bright Street, Colne, Lancashire. In 2005 the artist worked with residents to document the effects of a local government regeneration strategy to demolish their homes and make way for gardens for the remaining residents. The work, which includes photography, video and found objects, explores notions of home and has developed around ideas of location, the self and spatial ownership. From domestic interviews about life on the street, to atmospheric shots of the vacated properties, the project contributes to discourse surrounding issues of displacement in the face of adversity and legislation of regeneration and the renewal of place. The work was exhibited at Preston Archives in May 2015, and will be on shown for the first time in the town where it was conceived in 2017.
All images courtesy William Titley
Essay first published at The double negative.