After 5 days spent working in full view of the public at the former Oggy Oggy pasty shop on Queen St, This City’s Centre has taken on a new, and perhaps slightly anarchic, energy and momentum. It’s what seems to take place when members of the public respond with curiosity to an unexpected happening, and daily life intervenes in artistic process.
From 2-6 June we were in residence from 9.30am-6.30pm in this really busy thoroughfare on the edge of the Guildhall Shopping Centre. Over the course of the week, probably a couple of hundred people engaged with what we were doing in a variety of ways. Some stayed for just a few minutes, making a backdrop and inspiration for our actions as they watched us work through the huge shop windows. Some peeked through our cardboard scenery for 5 or 10 minutes at a time whilst we tested out our projections in the darkness. But some – people none of us had even met before – felt comfortable enough to walk in off the street and sit with us for much longer periods us as we rehearsed. Some people were just looking for the pasty shop, luckily it’s only moved 50 metres down the road.
Having the opportunity to work in a shop
space to try out our ideas at an early stage of our devising process has stepped us up a gear; bringing us into direct contact with the things we’ve been thinking about and discussing over the last few months, and helping us to manifest a real sense of the city through a combination of public interaction, live performance, and video. We’ve been thinking about how both people and things move through central Exeter, the mechanics of the city’s infrastructures and civic processes, public art and monuments. We’ve been exploring personal stories drawn out of the city’s architecture and collective memory; taking ideas and thoughts from the many street interviews we’ve done and turning them into performance texts and movement.
Making performance in a shop rather than a studio means it’s impossible to shut out the noise of the city, and why would you? We’ve been trying out different ways to bring the sounds of the city – traffic, people, birdsong, buskers – into our work. And using objects we’ve found –
pieces of paper and writings dropped on the street and ‘retail debris’ (cardboard boxes and plastic wrapping to you and me) to see how it can transform space.
We are choosing to work in a city centre shop so that we can perform in and be surrounded by the place we are making work about. We want to create public access to our processes of art and performance making, as much as to the final product. And in doing so we are inviting the city and its people to interrupt what we’re making, in order to make a performance that is responsive, questioning and open in its final form.
Occupying an empty shop with performance is also a kind of statement in itself. Or rather a set of questions. There is a very current discussion worldwide about creating a healthy balance between retail, cultural activity and residential living in order to get the very best out of our city centres. Vienna for instance has just been recognised once more as the city with the best quality of life – having increasingly pedestrianised the city centre. It is an area which is highly residential and also finds a home for markets and festivals.
Shopping space represents a large part of the very centre of Exeter – like most British cities. Spending time in designated shopping spaces represents a good proportion of Exeter residents city centre experience. We are currently witnessing a massive turn over of occupancy in retail space due to the economic climate – and that turbulence fits with the dynamic of our exploration in This City’s Centre. Where will we be as a society when the dust has settled? And in the meantime, how can vacant city centre space be used for public benefit when retail runs into hard times? How can this use improve the liveliness and vitality of the city centre, whilst at the same time as providing a space for encounter without the need for consumption or specific profit in mind, a place to relax easily with both neighbours and strangers, and a place in which the civic mind can grow and thrive?
When we toured the mobile window around the city centre as part of NOSE in March ,we asked the question ‘What would you do if everything you can see through this window were yours? If it felt as much home to you as your own back garden?’ The people we are working with as part of this project live in the city centre, they look out of their window every day and sometimes they dream. Now we are asking what can we learn from them and the things they dream about? With This City’s Centre we are attempting to bring local residents lives, dreams and pre-occupations into an empty retail space, a reminder of the fact that cities – in particular economically successful cities – are made up of and shaped by people.
We are still on the lookout for a final venue for our September performance. We are hoping to get that sorted out as soon as possible, so that we can work visibly and hospitably in the city centre over the summer.
In the meantime we’d like to thank the Guildhall Shopping Centre for their generosity in hosting us and our cardboard explorations for the week. To our retail neighbours and shopping centre staff who supplied friendly greetings and hot water, and in particular to Devon Coffee for the excellent pastries that sustained our audience for the open rehearsal.
This City’s Centre‘s residence in the former Oggy Oggy pasty shop was a part of Ignite – Exeter’s festival of theatre. Read all about what you might have missed on Belinda Dillon’s blog HERE.
A collaborative blog about cities across the world POLIS
Other inspirational empty shop ventures:
Theatre Absolute (Coventry)
Advice on performing in empty shops
BBC News article
Augusto Corrieri The Glass Room
Dan Thompson Founder of Empty Shops Network
Empty Shops Network
Invisible Flock Bring The Happy – coming to Exeter next year
Second Hand Dance
Sky News article
Zefrey Throwell – I’ll Raise You One (New York)
Re-imagining the High St (The Guardian)
Residence at The Milk Bar Bristol
Urban Dream Brokerage (NZ)