Assemble, a collective of 18 artists, have been nominated for their ongoing collaboration with the local community in the Granby Four Streets area of Liverpool. The project built upon the resourceful, creative actions of the local residents, and translated it into the rebuilding and refurbishment of housing and public space, whilst supporting the provision of new work and enterprise opportunities in this Liverpool neighbourhood.
Working across the fields of art, design and architecture, Assemble’s practice aims to address the disconnection between the public and the process of creating places or cities. The collective have worked together since 2010, when they transformed a derelict petrol station on Clerkenwell Road into a cinema, entitled The Cineroleum.
They have since worked a variety of process-led projects, creating playful interventions, temporary installations, and interactive, experimental environments, often involving the public as participants or collaborators, including constructing a new temporary public venue in Folly for a Flyover, the recent Brutalist Playground made from foam at RIBA in London this year.
The Granby Four Streets project takes its name from an area of terraced houses in Toxteth which were built around 1900 to house artisan workers: the area has since become one of the most ethnically diverse in Liverpool, including being home to what is claimed to be the UK’s oldest black community. After the riots in 1981, hundreds of homeowners were moved out of the area, with compulsory purchasing by the council, and many properties were ‘tinned-up’ in preparation for demolition.
Like much of their previous work, Assemble’s project illuminates the social and historical contexts of these spaces. “There’s loads of really difficult things about the asset stripping of a community and the dispersal of a community, especially after the riots in the 80s,” says Assemble’s Fran Edgerley. “There’s a lady in here, who’s been sequentially moved down Granby Street four times, and then seeing [the empty houses] stand there for another ten years.”
As part of the renovation of the properties with former residents and local people, Assemble crafted a range of beautiful handcrafted products in the Granby Workshop, to replace elements that had been removed from the houses. This built on action from the community who had constantly fought the neglect and plans for demolition, clearing rubbish, painting curtains onto boarded up houses, and cultivating garden space.
“The designs originated from the work we were doing in Granby, creating items to replace architectural features, and personal home products that had been stripped out of the houses by the council in preparation for them to be demolished. They ripped out all the fireplaces, they ripped out all the tiles, and the fabrics – any sign of life or personality was stripped from the houses,” Edgerley says.
“We’ve been acting, in a more traditional sense, as architects, but then not really because we’ve been making all these products which have been replacing those elements,” she continues. “Part of the whole thing is trying to be opportunistic, so cheap about the way things are done. So where a ceiling night have fallen in, using it to create a double height space not just putting in another low celling.”
Using simple, low cost materials, many of the houses have now been fitted with these handcrafted architectural and decorative elements, which help to re-establish the character of the houses. Five of the homes are now finished and have become occupied in the last two weeks.
“Every single house is different, and I think that’s really important because it’s less generic, it’s much more considered and careful, as it would be in your own home,” Edgerley says, “That felt really important in terms of the Community Land Trust being the client and that they have such a huge level of personal investment in that area, so it felt inappropriate to just reel off repetitive designs.”
For their Turner Prize installation at Tramway in Glasgow, entitled A Showroom for Granby Workshop, the products were displayed in a life-size house structure – the same internal, bare walls as the Granby spaces. The structure, with its double room height, open window space, empty chimneybreast space and bare plaster, stands like a monument, a shrine to regeneration, restoration and collaboration.
The installation acts as documentation for the project – with shelves and tables filled with objects, iPads and photographs for visitors to delve into – but also as a launch and showroom for the Granby Workshop – a formally boarded-up shop space in the area where Assemble work with local people in the production of the homewares.
In the longer term the project aims to bring and support small-scale manufacturing in Granby Four Streets – an area historically known for a tradition of making things – and in turn, economic support, with the products available to purchase online. “The idea was to show the products – we are using this to launch the first range. We are taking pre-orders and using that time to kick start going into production in January,” says Assemble’s Amica Dall. “The workshop itself will work as a social enterprise, with all the money going back into the workshop, and for a programme for young people.”
From the bisque-fired doorknobs, light-pulls and handles, fired in a barbeque with banana skins and pine needles to produce varying colours and patterns, to the mantelpieces and work surfaces cast using brick and rubble construction waste from the area, the inventive and well-crafted product range and the resourcefulness of the project is inspiring.
“It’s not upmarket prices, but it’s enough to pay people to work in a pleasant way. We’re not trying to do it as cheaply as possible, but we are also not trying to take advantage of anyone,” Edgerley says. “The main thing is that all of the products have been designed, and are process-led, so the idea is that they are all a bit ad-hoc, and can change depending on who’s making them.”
Being a social enterprise, Assemble’s project has caused debate over whether it qualifies for a place in the Turner shortlist. But when doesn’t the question of ‘what is contemporary art’ split opinion when it comes to the Turner Prize?
Assemble were themselves also somewhat taken aback at the nomination. Speaking humbly about the project, they were keen to stress that the project’s scope goes wider than their involvement.
“The [houses] that we are renovating now are the same building stock that people were claiming were unfit for human habitation, five years ago, ten years ago, and there’s been waves and waves of demolition, and top down housing market initiatives. It’s just really sad,” Edgerley says. “It’s not us that’s stopped things from being demolished, that was all the Community Land Trust, really we haven’t done very much – we are just like one small bit of a very long 20 years worth of story.”
The other shortlisted works for the Turner prize this year include Bonnie Camplin’s vaguely intriguing The Military Industrial Complex, a research room of TV interviews with conspiracy theory fans and related reading material; DOUG, musical outbursts about ‘small catastrophes’ by six opera singers composed by Janice Kerbel – although the interest here for many was found reading the poetic lyrics on the adjacent wall; and Nicole Wermers’ Infrastruktur, an enjoyably hateable, and completely vacant installation of fur coats sewn to chairs. For me, Assemble’s project is streets ahead.
The Turner Prize 2015 is at Tramway in Glasgow until 17 Jan. tramway.org/turner-prize
Images: Assemble/Ben Quinton