bed of canal

Factory Night @ Bed of closed Burslem Branch Canal

April 2012

Including a canal boat ride, visit to historic wharf, loading warehouse and surrounding Middleport community.

In collaboration with the Burslem Port Trust and Grindeys Community.

This Factory Night started with a canal boat ride from Westport Lake down to the start of what was the Burslem arm of the Trent and Mersey canal. The artists then hiked along the bed of the canal which was closed by a major breach in 1961 viewing the old Cooperative buildings, recently uncovered walls of the canal and the natural valley adjacent to the site.  This tour was lead by Steve Bream of the knowledgeable Burslem Port Trust who are working on an exciting project to bring the Canal back and activate the site.  The walk ended with time to explore the historic whalf, loading warehouse and surrounding Middleport community currently undergoing major development. The aim of this Factory Night was to provide an insight into the rich history of the Burslem Port site and for artists and creative people through our Unique Commissions bursary to be involved in the future visioning of the site.

The Burslem Branch Canal is a 3/8 mile arm of the Trent and Mersey Canal in Stoke-on-Trent. The canal opened in 1805 and was closed by a major breach in 1961.
Backed by the Trent and Mersey Canal Society and the Stoke-on-Trent Branch of the Inland Waterways Association, and with support from Renew North Staffordshire, the former local housing regeneration body, and British Waterways, the Burslem Port Project aims to restore the Branch Canal and create an attractive and safe “haven” for boaters passing through or visiting Stoke-on-Trent. The restoration will also be a major feature in and contributor to, the regeneration of both the Middleport community alongside the canal site and nearby Burslem, the “Mother Town” of the Potteries.

It’s a question of not starting with answers…

The process of commissioning art, for all its long and famous history, has always been fraught with difficulties. Without it, who knows what the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel would have looked like? Then again, it can be a great source of conflict, ranging from the disappointment of having to compromise all the way to the complete impasse best illustrated by Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc . What Rednile has been offering with Factory Nights is not only a novel approach to commissioning that dispels connotations of power formerly associated with the process, but also a chance to finally establish a welcome case for best practice.

If you ever thought of commissioning art, as an individual or on behalf of an organisation, you’ve probably been advised to first develop a brief and then to search for suitable artists to implement your vision. As valuable as these basic guidelines might be, one does not always know exactly what to ask for, how to formalise ideas that might be of a visual or abstract nature or even where to look for artists. As an artist, being approached with demands for ““Artwork onto vitreous enamel panels: 160 x 140 x 25mm” or “a piece of public artwork exploring the life and work of So and So” and often little to no information about the context can also be daunting.

What lacks in such an approach is the relationship that makes it possible for communication between both parties to flow in a constructive manner in order to achieve a collaborative, mutually satisfying outcome. As James Lingwood, founder of the commissioning organisation Art Angel once stated: “Every new commission begins with questions, not answers.” Without that, expectations, concerns and needs might remain unaddressed, turning the commissioning process into a potentially disappointing experience, or even a nightmarish one. Sometimes, the central issue of facilitating communication is addressed by hiring a consultant, especially in situations where public art is commissioned. This rarely proves to be an efficient solution as the consultant is often employed by the person or body commissioning the art and, therefore, mainly aims to protect their interests.

It is perhaps more helpful to think about the mutual knowledge, trust and respect necessary to a positive outcome for a commissioning process as the foundation of any solid partnership. So why not approach this as one would any other meaningful relationship by relying to a third party for a bit of match-making magic? After all, someone who understands how artists work as well as what potential collectors might want can provide precious help when it comes to cutting through incompatible expectations.

But to reduce Rednile’s practice to a match-making service would be an oversimplification. Rather, they facilitate collaborations of all kinds which create spaces of possibility for art to be created and experienced differently. They have made it a specialty to address potential gaps in the cultural landscape of the West Midlands and the North East of England by bringing together practitioners from all creative spheres to devise collaborative projects that have taken the form of temporary public art, events, studio spaces, mentoring and residencies often meeting regeneration and/or community agendas. Basically, Rednile thrives on the fact that there isn’t a single perspective that is sufficient to address contemporary art.

Factory Nights, the on-going series of working sessions for creatives popping around different locations of the West Midlands and the North East, gently chip away at barriers between artists and communities, businesses and industry leaders by bringing them together in a playful, often surprising, environment where differences are easy to forget. While having tea on a canal boat, exploring the bed of a closed canal and taking refuge from hail under the cover of trees as we did on Saturday the 21st of April 2012 , conversation flowed easily between members of the Burslem Port Trust and artists. Whoever was inspired by the space and the Burslem Port Trust’s enthusiasm to work with creative people, was encouraged to submit a proposal to Rednile for support in developing the idea further.

Instead of bowing out once the introductions have been made, extending this support in all kinds of forms including bursaries and hands-on help, allows Rednile to remain at the heart of the commissioning process. Adding more people to the complex relationships generated by the commissioning process might appear counter-intuitive. In fact, they appear somewhat reluctant to maintain too much of a presence or to leave too strong a stamp on projects that come out of Factory Nights. That slight tension is par for the course when establishing new practices but what Rednile offers is impartial facilitation.

Hopefully, over time this facilitating presence will firmly present itself as an ideal addition to the commissioning process, a best practice of sorts. Far from being the proverbial third wheel, Rednile provides perspective with both an understanding of artistic processes and a clear view of how these can be compatible with the needs and expectations of communities, businesses and local authorities. In other words, they know which questions to ask and they don’t hesitate to ask them, opening up the commissioning process for all involved, allowing for self-reflexivity and communication.

Martine Rouleau


paper writer