Postcard from... Archive 2017

Postcard from...The Artist Hotel

Image credit: Ibolya Feher, courtesy Knowle West Media Centre

In September 2017, Bristol’s Knowle West Media Centre invited artists to stay at Filwood Community Centre overnight, and imagine other ways to regenerate a neighbourhood. Reporting back, Rowan Lear muses on what it means to host and be hosted in this context…


 

“The final night came, the creatures knew,
and each turned their beak or mouthparts to you:
now it was your turn to be the host,
to guide them, to nourish them,
to offer a space both cave,
and nest, and web, and burrow.”

So began the final portion of Bristol-based poet Caleb Parkin’s bedtime story, a fable of homes and housing, feasts and keeping score: a zoological ‘Come Dine with Me’. In the darkness of an old gymnasium and a scattering of camp beds, Parkin led a dozen artists from cavern to treetop, warren to web, in search of the ‘perfect home’ – and perfect host. Some were already lulled to slumber in their sleeping bags, but I was awake.

It was a night of surrealism and seriousness: cocktail competitions and signmaking; singing rounds by a campfire and guided tours of our ‘hotel’. The venue – an 80 year old, cash-strapped community centre in a outlying neighbourhood – next year faces the complete withdrawal of its funding from Bristol City Council (itself suffering drastic cuts from central government). It boasts an art deco hall, bar, kitchen, internal courtyard and even skittle alleys – lots of space and potential – and a welcoming manager, Jo Southard, who urges us: “We want you, the artists, to come!”

This pop-up edition of a longer-term project, the Artist Hotel is part of a wider focus on citizen-led solutions at Knowle West Media Centre, which includes We can make… homes and the launch of a locally-constructed prototype strawbale house. In the morning’s breakfast discussion, producer Melissa Mean makes clear the project’s aspirations. With the city in desperate need of affordable housing, “rather than rely on speculative developers or the last remnants of council stock”, it is time to “empower communities to become developers.” And, she adds, “artists are vital to this process.”

But this feels like dangerous territory. Artists are invited to supply much-needed vitality and creative energy, but – especially after a chilly and wakeful night on squeaky air mattresses – it is not clear if the exchange is equal. My fellow hotel patrons bashfully admit that they rather enjoy the rare anonymity of private hotel rooms: artists often ‘retreat’ not to enact solipsistic creation, but as genuine recovery time away from the pressures of artistic production and financial instability.

So I lay awake, thinking about Parkin’s tale of interspecies hospitality and irreconcilable differences, and wondered about this relationship between artist and community: was it a parasitic one? And if so, who is the parasite?

It’s a disturbing image, discomfiting even. The host of a parasite doesn’t sound like what we imagine as a ‘good host’. It means being invaded, violated and ultimately changed. It means the borders of the body are weaker, more porous than we expected; it implies being open to intrusion and transformation.

But then perhaps this is what a good host is: open, welcoming, and taking a risk – accepting the perils of hospitality. And as for who is doing the hosting, we might consider what Michel Serres means when he writes, “There are some black spots in language. The field of the host is one such dark puddle.” His essay, ‘The Parasite’ turns on a linguistic anomaly – the French word hôte can mean guest or host.

To unsettle one’s role, to muddle the boundaries between outside and inside, to embrace but never fully assimilate the other, feels like the opposite of the ‘parachuting in’ that artists or curators are often criticised for doing, particularly in socially-engaged projects. As curator Dominic Willsdon notes, writing in the context of Liverpool Biennial’s 2014 project The Resident, “parachuting in only happens when the land borders are guarded or closed or otherwise impassable. Why are the borders impassable?”

The borders, even if metaphorical, might be mutually constituted. Artists, probably everywhere, but certainly in the UK, often feel they are taken advantage of, paid little if at all, to fulfil the goals of institutions, generate social acquiescence or maintain a ‘creative city’ brand. But neighbourhoods also, can feel that artists are taking advantage, entering and exiting at will, exoticising deprivation and siphoning from ever-decreasing pots of cash.

These ‘bad feelings’ might have something to do with perceptions of mobility. As ‘ticks’ par excellence, artists often appear free to leap from institution to institution, funder to funder, neighbourhood to neighbourhood. We forget, of course, that ticks die after their blood-feast, once they are uprooted – and, as performer Ed Rapley reminds us at the breakfast discussion, that artists are not rootless beings: “Every piece of work you ever made, was made in a place.”

We all need places: for housing, for making, for sharing. If nothing else, the Artist Hotel is a reminder of this fundamental common need, amid the swelling tide of house prices, inflated rents and stagnant wages.

Willsdon elsewhere refers to architecture critic Joseph Grima’s division between the house as a tool (habitation as its primary function) and the house as an asset (capital accumulation as its primary function). While spaces of habitation are increasingly financialised (not only by buy-to-let but through platforms of self-exploitation vis-à-vis Airbnb) Willsdon suggests that this distinction opens up the possibility of “working-class home-building as a strategy for anti-capitalist activism.”

In a city where artist-led spaces are short-lived and disappearing (or ironically sold off to boutique hotel chains called Artist Residence), artists and their neighbours need to muster the creative energy and political strategy to think further ahead than the next short-term let. Perhaps the future Artist Hotel could be the site of this assembly.

***

Rowan Lear is an artist, writer and organiser.

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