Guest blog: Faith in empty shops

Brighton1Whether you’re in Brighton or Glasgow, Bristol or Birmingham, we’ve an abundance of identical high streets in the UK. By filling every shop with so many things that we want but don’t need, it becomes easy to lose sight of what really makes us tick as people. Rather than gaining real relationships, in the places that lie at the geographical and social centre of our communities, we develop economic relationships with faceless brands, built on a basis of financial gain rather than creativity and community. It has grown easy to accept this as the norm. With fringe theatres and the odd quirky cafe or venue hidden in the back streets of our towns and cities, many acknowledge that these places exist without feeling they can embrace all they have to offer. In many places, the High Street has offered nothing but “clone” retail outlets. For whatever reason, this old model has been seen to fail, empty shops are everywhere, and we have a been gifted a chance to re-imagine what these places can become. We believe that the high street, as the centre of community, can offer inclusive spaces for creativity and art.

On London Road in Brighton, there remain a number of shops that have been empty for years, and the spaces that are still in use are dominated by betting shops, amusement stores, off licences, pound shops, fast food outlets & charity shops. Despite this, London Road is anything but lifeless. There is a strong community which prevented a large Tesco superstore from being built in 2009, spearheaded by the brilliant Another London Road. Housing for 350 students is currently being built on the site of the old co-op building, while next door a revamped Open Market is about to reopen its doors. Further down the road on York Place the opening of an ethical supermarket is imminent, and earlier in the year a theatre opened in an old church, catering for the cabaret and professional theatre circuits. There are exciting murmurings of new activity in the area but many shops are still empty and in need of a new lease of life.

This is precisely why we feel a space like Shopfront is necessary on the high street, and why now seems like the perfect time to take advantage of the number of disused spaces we see and build upon the success and accessibility of pop-up culture. The possibility has inspired us all. Our own collectives and groups include an architecture and design collective Gang of Six, Cat and Mouse Theatre Troupe, and a community pop-up kitchen and food waste initiative, Sourcepan Collective. Quickly we’ve become settled into the idea of working collaboratively on the project with one common goal; to breathe life and energy back into a space that is empty.

So what  is Shopfront? It’s a multi-purpose creative “shop” for the whole community. We aim to offer a pop-up space with a three week programme of events running in February 2014, ranging from fully immersive theatrical evenings & musical offerings to food-waste community kitchens, theatre workshops for children, talks from a variety of groups, organisations and individuals and a whole lot more! The groups will collaboratively re-design and rebuild the interior of an old shop, led by architecture collective Gang of Six, turning it into a playful and adaptive space that can be used as a cafe and meeting place in the daytime and be transformed for theatre and live music in the evening.

Whilst pop up culture is booming, the exploitative use of a creative and special opportunity as an excuse for more impersonal and uninspiring retail outlets, can be a problem. Rowan Moore of The Observer highlights the fact that, ‘There are pop up retail outlets that borrow the aura of creative spontaneity to exploit strips of land where they wouldn’t otherwise be permitted.’ This not only undermines the nature of reappropriating a space for a short time to alter its initial purpose, but also reduces the faith in the pop up idea for others with a genuine passion for creating something new and exciting in a disused space. Moore goes on to state that, ‘At best, this can be a case of enlightened self-interest; at worst, a cynical ploy.’ However, there are many examples of temporary projects bringing arts space to unlikely places. Much of the amazing work that German group Raumlabor has carried out, for example ‘The Generator’ project, has brought alternative use to underused space and back in the UK, projects such as Folly for a Flyover & The Reunion were brilliant.

With Shopfront, we want to steer as far as we can from the idea of pop up retail, by creating a not for profit, exciting and inspirational space; that invites the community to experience and think more about the potential benefit of a new type of ‘shop’ on the high street. Which is where we need your help. We hope that after the inception and introduction of Shopfront onto the high street, it can go on to grow, travel and flourish in spaces nationally, but to do this, it has to be as accessible as possible to as many people as possible. So we’ve decided to fully fund the project with loans, grants, our own pockets and most importantly, utilising the fantastic culture of crowdsourced funding. We are soon going to launch the Shopfront Kickstarter Campaign – we need to raise £5000 in the 60 days following the launch, we will post all details of the campaign on our Tumblr  along with how the project is progressing, but most importantly we ask for your help in making sure that the campaign remains prominent,. This is a space for everybody, and the more time and love we all put in, the more potential there is for an incredibly special three weeks. We’re incredibly excited about the next few months and eventually seeing the space open and being used and enjoyed, keep your eyes peeled and ears open, this is just the start!

A guest blog from Joe Giddings from Gang of Six and Joe Mulcrone from Cat and Mouse Theatre Troupe, two of the organisations collaborating on Brighton’s Shopfront.

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