I am one quarter of the arts research collective Tracing the Pathway, who explore the relationships between memory, body, site and encounter, developing a fluid, itinerant and communal approach to art. In May we began Groundwork, a performance and research project specifically for and about the area of Milton Keynes, generously supported with funding from the MK Community Foundation. The project seeks to find and introduce new ways of celebrating and debating the town’s cultural and artistic heritage through the mediums of art and performance.
Milton Keynes currently has few (and even less that are sustainable) performance and live art opportunities for emerging to mid-career artists. Tracing the Pathway are therefore keen to offer a platform for professional artists to explore the potential of the town and to consider new and exciting creative outlets and audiences in MK.
This desire stems from a very personal observation as an artist who grew up and is now based in the town. There is immense potential but at present it is a struggle to find professional opportunities to work and constructively develop my artistic practice. As a slightly reluctant owner of the moniker “Milton Keynes resident”, I feel passionately about the development of Milton Keynes’ engagement with a diverse range of arts practices. Milton Keynes has fantastic transport links to the rest of the country – fast rail connections to London, Birmingham, Manchester and Edinburgh; a new bus terminal with quick routes to Oxford, Cambridge and the rest of central England; and of course the M1, which I practically live on! As a performance artist, always travelling with/for my work, this has made MK a very attractive place to settle, however, recently this has simply not felt like a good enough reason to call somewhere home. A deep ecological guilt has bubbled within me, like I owe it to Milton Keynes to find a reason to love it for who it is, rather than just for its amenable escape routes. I am typical among young artists in Milton Keynes. There are almost no prospects of work in the arts and although there is a small smattering of artists living in MK, they often describe themselves as London-based, or simply UK-based, and have become accustomed to a life as a commuter artist in a commuter town. Cara, another member of Tracing the Pathway, and the co-lead on Groundwork, was originally from Flitwick, a small town close to MK, but now lives in London. She is typical of another demographic of MK artists who leave the area for higher education study and are then unable to return due to a lack of opportunities to further their creative practice.
These concerns stimulated the creation of Groundwork, with the aim of providing entry points of artistic engagement and professional development within and with Milton Keynes. It is intended these will be long-term, sustainable opportunities that not only create the chance for local artists to engage with others’ performance practices, but also to develop a community in which professional Milton Keynes-based artists can meet, collaborate and learn together.
Cara and I have worked collaboratively in this venture with Milton Keynes Arts Centre to produce a programme that offers local, national and international artists the opportunity to spend time fully immersed in the community of Milton Keynes. Under the guise of ‘Site Artists’ we are inviting individuals, or companies/collectives, to undertake short research initiatives, offering time and space for these artists to creatively explore the space in and around Milton Keynes Arts Centre (MKAC) and the wider site of Milton Keynes.
Initially invited to spend 10 days at MKAC, as a research-intensive, Site Artists are encouraged to explore how the people of Milton Keynes live, work and play. During this 10-day period it is Tracing the Pathway’s role to help facilitate the Site Artists to undertake their creative/research methods, to support them in teasing out connections between the place, people, heritage, geography and history of the location. What I love, and is unique, about the project is that the Site Artist(s) have the freedom to follow their own threads of investigation, without the pressure of delivering a final product.
In May Groundwork saw invited artists’ Beatrice Jarvis and Phil Smith each immerse themselves in Milton Keynes, exploring our city’s community, history and landscape, alongside sonic artist Aaron James who took up the role of ‘Cite Artist’ (a role developed out of our initial call out for Site Artists) to consider experimental ways of capturing the Site Artist’s experience of the city. Both Site Artists were selected by a community panel comprising of members of the local community, representatives from MKAC and the MK Community Foundation. Beatrice Jarvis was selected due to her strong personal and historical connection to Milton Keynes. Both her mother and father worked for the Milton Keynes Development Corporation in the 1960s-70s when the small village of Middletown was expanded into the large, urban grid we now recognise as MK today. Phil’s position as Site Artist enabled him to return to Milton Keynes for the first time since 2005, when his collective Wrights and Sites participated in filming a documentary series called Subverting the City for Channel 4’s 3 Minute Wonder slots. On the last day of each Site Artist visit, the artist’s offered a workshop to a mixed group of Milton Keynes and nationally based artists, followed by an evening sharing event open to anyone who was interested in their work or the project.
Beatrice was the first to visit MK, filling her time with a cacophony of walks, movement scores, encounters, bird song and canals. She navigated both personal histories and urban ideals. Her first day in Milton Keynes happened to coincide with a social media campaign #lovemk and by following this hashtag Beatrice was introduced to the city digitally, through a cartography of warmth and celebration. An alternative, biased, tour guide, #lovemk offered Beatrice a city filled with coffee cups, dancers atop local landmarks, fireman surrounded by heart shaped hoses, and of course, concrete cows. A view of the city through the eyes of its residents, this guide was shaped with more warmth and humour than the usual scorn or hyperbole that surrounds the unusual Milton Keynes landscape.
She struggled with the city at times. It’s designated areas of work and play and walk and drive troubled her natural individualism, but she persevered and asked the city to dance – and it replied.
Beatrice offered a workshop that turned Milton Keynes into a live urban laboratory and explored the body’s relationship to the new city through methods of expanded choreography and town planning. During her stay she wrote a document, in collaboration with her father Dr Bob Jarvis, which delicately and poetically offers an insight to her 10 days. Inspired by how many rules and manifestoes the city has developed in its 48 years, she produced ‘This is not a manifesto’ which can be accessed here:
During Beatrice’s stay, our Cite Artist Aaron James discovered hours of interviews with the Milton Keynes Development Corporation in the City Discovery Centre archives. Through the interviews Aaron learnt a lot about the original plans for the town’s development and the little touches MKDC created for new homeowners in the 1960s. One of these touches was that upon purchasing a house the new property owner was gifted a tree voucher, enabling them to have a thriving garden. This information inspired Aaron to think about the roots of the city’s urban design and planning, how it grew and developed into the MK we know today, and its relationship to the aims of Groundwork: to build connections between local and national artists, MK residents and businesses. In honour of Groundwork, Aaron decided to gift a tree to Milton Keynes Arts Centre and Tracing the Pathway. For Aaron the tree became a symbol of/for the future growth and development of the project but also a metaphorical link to some of the places Beatrice and Aaron visited during their stay. Of particular significance was the former residence of Beatrice’s father Bob, who lived there in 1957-1960. The house was more recently occupied by the town planner John Seed, who was a pivotal figure in the establishment of the town.
As part of Beatrice’s sharing event, Aaron showed a film of the tree being planted. The film was layered with recordings of interviews from the Discovery Centre archive alongside ones he had conducted himself.
Phil, as our second Site Artist, spent many hours exploring footpaths, dead ends and grassy verges, taking a mythogeographical turn around Milton Keynes.
Phil had a wildly varied visit: from improvisational massages with strangers to attending the Lawn Mower Club; Mad Max adventures to architectural petcha kutchas; Medieval choral music in famous, forgotten churches to Jazz Night soul; having supper with the High Sheriff of Buckinghamshire to attending a Baptism. Phil embraced Milton Keynes in a way that many visitors might not know how. He insatiably investigated the history of the site before it existed as a new town; placing stories on top of stories to open mine and Cara’s eyes to a different Milton Keynes.
In Phil’s own words:
‘I had set out to test the city with walking. But all the time I was telling myself poisonous stories: “The city is a brutalist, windswept grid of unnatural materials.” “The city is an idyll where town is greener than countryside and all desirable entertainment is a short drive away.” Aloof in the entanglement of its narratives, somehow nothing is ameliorated in the peculiar ambiguities of Milton Keynes. Utopia and dystopia sit side by side. Growing more powerful and more principled. At once throttling and productive.’ (From his Sharing Evening Photo Essay, May 2015)
Phil and Aaron discovered a natural phenomena called Slime Flux during one rainy walk. This rare occurrence formed the basis of a new audio track by Aaron. Inspired by the journeys Phil and he traversed along the grid road systems, under by-passes and round the lakes, Aaron took field recordings from multiple sites in MK and re-mixed them to reflect the cyclical nature of the city.
Groundwork will continue throughout 2015 with a series of Supper Clubs aimed at Milton Keynes based artists, but which includes invited attendees from further afield. The purpose of the meal is for all to meet and discuss their practice over dinner in an evening curated by a “Host Artist”. More information about these events will be posted soon, in the meantime if you are interested in attending one of these events please email Cara and I via: [email protected] .