I’ve been involved in, I think, three or four projects now with the Media Centre, over the last three years and I was approached in the first place to get involved with some community consultation, [an] arts programme, called Lost & Found, where I was among a group of artists who were invited to try and think about way-finding.
We’ve done quite a lot of work in the past about the role that technology can play in communities to help people to get to know their area in exciting and interesting and different sorts of ways. It was a really exciting opportunity because we’d heard rumour-mills around this place – Knowle West Media Centre – from colleagues and friends down in Bristol but had never visited and didn’t really know what to expect, I guess.
So we worked on Lost & Found for nearly a year, producing a whole lot of different prototypes and interventions and events and workshops, and then off the back of that we were then invited to get involved in a couple of other projects – and then we also worked with Knowle West Media Centre to bid as partners for a project for [Bristol’s year as] European Green Capital, which we called the Forgotten Toys Compendium, which was about how you can make better use of e-waste and other play-related things that would normally be thrown away.
Like everything else with Knowle West [Media Centre] it was progress-driven and really about story and place – and so although you start a project going, ‘Let’s go! Let’s ride around on a bike and gather loads of toys!’ actually it was this really enlightening, creative, inspiring kind of process – of gathering tales and trying to pinpoint something about a sense of identity that comes associated with these sort of social history or social culture projects.
…I’ve been working with community partners in arts and creative settings for fifteen, sixteen years and I’ve worked in probably more than 100 schools and I wouldn’t like to count how many community centres and community arts venues and those sorts of things. There’s a certain set of expectations that you bring with you when you’re working in community arts organisations and I think the thing that stood out the most – and has always stood out the most – and is one of the reasons I like spending time working, and not working, with Knowle West Media Centre is it doesn’t feel like a community arts centre – the quality, the expectation, the standard, the, sort of, vision, the strategy, is of such an unbelievably high standard it’s completely unlike any other venue or host or partner that I’ve ever worked with in participatory arts or community arts settings.
There’s a rigour to what they do – but normally when you use that word, ‘rigour’, it suggests that it’s something that’s kind of stern or about rules and it’s not like that at all. There’s an unbelievable sort of vision for what they want to achieve and although it’s set within a community it doesn’t feel like any of those kind of community arts centres or community arts partners that you work [that are] with are difficult to convince or are stuck in their ways or have been doing the same thing for years and years and years. There’s this constant appreciation of challenging new ideas and exciting new things and it’s an absolutely amazing place to work.
As a community arts venue it feels like something that’s grown really organically and, from what I understand about the history of the Knowle West Media Project and how that grew into the Media Centre, it’s had the community at the heart of it and you see that as soon as you walk in the door. The…familiar faces and the passion and the local expertise that you encounter from the second you walk in the door is just really exciting…it doesn’t feel like something that’s been parachuted in.
Although architecturally it doesn’t fit at all – it’s this sort of modern, contemporary behemoth in the community – on the street, I don’t know, it feels like something that’s always been there and people talk about it. It doesn’t matter where you are around the local area, you know ‘Go down the Media’ seems to be like a landmark that everyone’s familiar with and everyone has had some sort of encounter or dealing with.
One of the things that stood out to me the most when I first started working with the Media Centre was how much…how willing the people who work there are to just knock on doors and engage themselves with the community. I’ve never worked with a venue that takes themselves to people so much and the Kitchen Circus was a perfect example of that – you know an idea that ‘we want to take performance to people, rather than expecting people to come to the performance’. It sounds like a great idea in theory but how do you achieve that? Well, you achieve that by putting in the hours, by, you know, stomping the pavements and knocking on doors and collaring people in the streets and smiling, so much smiling, the entire time!
I’ve worked with other places in Bristol and now, through working with Knowle West [Media Centre], stayed quite a lot in Bristol and Knowle West has a sort of odd reputation that I think is mostly historic and I’ve spent days, weeks, walking, cycling, plodding around the area with camera and gadgets and gizmos and stuff. I’ve worked in people’s houses and gardens and bits of wasteland and, you know, rummaged through skips and spent an awful lot of time on the ground and I’ve never once felt at risk or under threat or, I guess, out of place. I’ve just constantly been made to feel welcome and there’s something to do with the fact that as soon as you say ‘I’m working with the Media [Centre],’ there’s this acceptance that comes with this and this appreciation that comes with it.
I just think that is such a disconnect with the reputation that people talk about with the area of Knowle West and I guess from an outsider coming in’s perspective, it really feels like the Media [Centre] plays an important role in that changing perception of the local area and getting people from other areas of Bristol to come into South Bristol and work and play and experience stuff together.
In the schemes of things I haven’t spent that much time working in Knowle West, you know. If you sandwiched it all together it’s probably a few months at the most and yet I feel a real kind of connection to the place. I feel like I know my way around and there’s familiar faces and I know the shops and the back alleys and the little cut-through paths here and there. I’ve got a real connection to the place and that doesn’t happen often when you’re working as an artist in community settings – I don’t necessarily feel a lasting connection to places. A lot of it is where you drift in and you drift out – that kind of intervention-based practice.
It’s really not like that at Knowle West, I feel really embedded to the area, even though I live a couple of hours away. The other thing about it is I just constantly want other people to go there … it feels like people just haven’t experienced participatory arts and technology until they’ve been to Knowle West. Not just visited and, sort of, seen the building, because the building is such a tiny part of it really, but really got stuck in and got involved in a project there. It’s so hard to describe, that’s why parts of this interview are really kind of hard to talk about because it’s…such an inspirational place and it works in such an interesting way that I’ve build a real connection to the area in a way that I don’t think I ever expected that I would.
I think the nature of the work that you’re doing when you’re working with the Media [Centre] is you’re not behind closed doors, you’re out and about, you’re visible, you’ve probably got some … weird gadget or you’re riding on a strange trike thing with a mutilated electronic toy gaffer-taped to the handlebars – it’s something of a conversation starter I guess, when you bump into people in the street.
And so you have all of these, some quite fleeting and some quite detailed, experiences with people and often some of the times when you’ve really felt like you’ve engaged with people the most are the times that started as nothing. You bump into someone when they’re taking the bins out and then, you know, an hour later you’re still in their back garden taking pictures of them and going through their prized possessions or recalling memories of heartache or, you know, happy family past – kind of gathering those experiences.
I think often it’s those incidental moments of working that seem to have the most impact and so I think… the way the Media Centre work[s], you’re constantly engaging people that, there’s no way that they would necessarily have that quality of experience if you were inviting them to come to a particular event or come to a particular workshop. There’s all sorts of interesting and weird and wonderful ways in which you’ve engaged new people. We’ve done things with drones and GPS gadgets and we’ve done things with laser-cut stickers and GPS devices and cameras and hand-held devices and pedometers and these, sort of, bits of technology that often people can point at it and go, ‘oh yeah, I think I know what that is’ but they’ve never had the opportunity to actually play and create and make with it themselves and apply their own experiences to it. So there’s a great sense of ownership that comes out of building that relationship with these bits of tech that I guess are sometimes a bit alien.
I recently invited [KWMC Head of Arts] Melissa to come and speak at an event I was organising up in the Midlands, as I honestly think it’s such a bastion of best practice, and out of all of the people that talked or presented at the event I probably had more conversations about Knowle West Media Centre with delegates than [about] anyone else. I think the thing that I’d really like to see is thinking about how we can champion these approaches and diversify those approaches so that nothing is lost in the impact of what they’re doing in Knowle West Media Cnetre but that experience and that kind of mindset can somehow mirror itself into other areas and other regions.
So things like the Night Walks with Teenagers project – I must’ve had a dozen people saying ‘I want to do a Night Walk with children!’ but I think there’s something about the way that’s facilitated and something about the way that that’s, kind of, dreamed up and approached by Knowle West, so what I’d really like to see is finding ways in which those methods, those approaches, that best practice can kind of funnel itself out, not just across the South West but across the country and probably internationally. How that is best done, I don’t know, but I think there’s lots that people can learn from the way that Knowle West Media Centre works so I’d like to see more of that in the future.
I have had loads [of memories] – there’s quite a few actually. There was…we did an intervention on the steps, the absolutely bonkers and bizarre set of steps that lead up to the health centre. We were doing a little mini residency there as part of one of the projects and spent a few days chatting with people as they were coming up and down and installing these sort of weird playful artworks on the steps and I was taking a whole load of pictures while I was up there. It was absolutely blistering hot, it was the middle of the summer, and these three late-teens early-20s lads in baseball caps with their shirts off sort of came stomping up the steps in front of us and one of them turned round to me and said, ‘you taking pictures?’… and I went, ‘oh, we’re just making these things,’ and I went on the defensive immediately. He went, ‘go on mate, take our picture! Take our picture!’ and they all kind of posed and gave us a hug. It was one of those lightbulb moments, where my immediate perception and my immediate interpretation of that situation was these three lads had taken umbrage when actually they were just desperate to engage and they really wanted to, kind of, get involved and they really wanted their picture taken; they really wanted to talk.
And it was me that was the problem, it wasn’t them…it was one of those light switch moments when I went, ‘oh!’ The only person that came off badly out of that exchange was me and it’s such an important thing. I remember it really clearly and I talk about it quite a lot in terms of reflecting upon participatory arts practice. I think there’s lots of little things like that.
The Forgotten Toys Compendium was odd as well – cycling along on this big bike thing, going round asking people for their rubbish. Most of the time you were picking up broken toys and someone would say, ‘yeah, you can have that but it’s got a dead mouse in it,’ or something like that. But just occasionally you’d get these unbelievable stories…I remember bumping into this lady and talking about a blanket of her grandmother’s, that her grandmother had made. She trotted off home to go and get it and came back…she was so proud of this thing, this thing that could only be seen as important by her, and was talking so passionately about it. Her family started gathering around and before I knew it there were ten of us all stood around talking. And so it’s those quite heartwarming moments of where it’s reflecting on me, I guess, more than on them.
There were other times that were fun and exciting and creative and annoying, like the time my drone smashed off the Knowle West Media Centre roof and I still haven’t fixed that…it’s those real personal moments that…that stick out really.
Dom Breadmore, artist