Gerry Proctor of EngageLiverpool was in Amsterdam to part take in the Public Space meetup series. The 2015 ECF R&D grantee spoke about the ‘Liverpool Air Project’ and ensuing ‘VENT! Liverpool Air Quality Festival’ which took place in Spring 2016.
To begin our conversation we started off by asking Gerry whether a cultural festival on air pollution isn’t a bit odd? “No”, said Gerry, “we wanted to bring a problem into public consciousness. Including the consciousness of people who perhaps don’t read. So we needed other cultural means to do so.” The problem Engage Liverpool wanted to address was that air pollution in the city caused 239 people to die of respiratory illnesses, with some 2440 years of life lost [Public Health England, 2011]. “Now, air pollution is a hidden problem, as we don’t see it, we don’t smell it.” Air pollution, in this case the high levels of fine particulates, nitrogen dioxide and ground level ozone concentrations, is caused, amongst others, by diesel exhaust fumes. And Liverpool, one of England’s larger poorer cities, with its ensuing levels of social deprivation, sees lower car ownership and thus more diesel-based transport by taxis and buses. Whereas other English cities as Nottingham and Leeds have invested in hybrid buses, Liverpool lags behind. Also the political leadership to really implement a city-wide air quality management plan is lacking. “So yes, we could ask politicians direct questions such as ‘What is your policy concerning air pollution?’ at public meetings, but we preferred to connect directly with the public first .”
Thus the Liverpool Air Project was born. “We published an open call for Liverpool-based artists to deliver public artworks on climate change, air pollution and Liverpool. With those artworks we would run an awareness raising campaign which would end with a community arts festival. All this was possible because we had been successful in being selected for the Idea Camp 2015. During the Idea Camp we got to talk to other cultural activists and learned so much we even got a grant to further develop our plans. That ECF grant turned out to be a multiplier, as after receiving it we were able to obtain two other grants. So where our invitation to participate in the Idea Camp was exciting and overwhelming, to be accepted for a grant was liberating and empowering.”
Once you had the grants did the project really start? “Indeed, and with them we were even able to properly pay the artists, something that rarely happens but something we are proud of. Then we could link the artists to scientists from Liverpool University. Their Professor of Climate Impacts was looking for ways to better connect science to people and step out of the usual realm where academics present papers to other academics. We built a strong link. The artists could learn and choose aspects of air pollution they could relate to. Julieann O’Malley worked on “Occlusion”, a performance installation on ‘the invisible intruders’. Charlotte Weatherstone compiled a wallscape “Iris” – changing with the seasons and delivering simple yet important messages about improving air quality. Tomo’s plan of decorating a certain number of Liverpool’s public bikes proved too ambitious for the city, thus he presented a ‘what might have been’ example. Street artist Tristan Brady-Jacobs portrayed Liverpudlians wearing gas masks and protective clothing in his series “The Glorms”. Pamela Sullivan created site specific works in her project “A warning” – which revealed their sinister messages only after rain slowly would wash away a protecting layer... ”
“The works of the commissioned artists then came together under the umbrella of VENT! Liverpool Air Quality Festival, which took place from February 20 – March 5 2016. We opened with a public forum, where so many mentioned they didn’t know about the air pollution, that already that proved to us we did something right. But it wasn’t all we wanted. We wanted to create a new platform where artists, scientists and regular Liverpudlians could come together to discuss public questions as air pollution and social deprivation. We thought VENT! was an excellent form to do so. But we at Engage Liverpool also consider it to be a step in a longer process of awareness-raising on public questions.”
“When, decades ago I lived in Latin America I learned how poor neighbourhoods were often the best organised neighbourhoods. And when the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre put participatory budgeting on the global map, it was the already-organised barrios which profited most. Their transformation started the transformation of large sectors of society. This example of neighbourhood activism is very inspiring to me and I hope our activities might in the end contribute to improving the city. In collaboration with networks – les Tetes de l’Art - and people - as Cristian Iaione – we have met via the Idea Camp we are working towards that goal. In the fall of 2016 we will program a series of public seminars on ‘Reclaiming the Cityfrom consumer and stranger to citizen and neighbour’. That series of civic engagement seminars reflects our belief that the city needs to be humanised before it can be organised.