Empty Shops Network founder Dan Thompson helped Appetite devise and deliver the Newcastle Common projecg, in two shops in Newcastle-under-Lyme, and had has been lead artist on the projecg. Here he reflects on the Green Town programme.
“We planned the programme that would become Newcastle Common, back when we were in lockdown.
Me and Appetite’s director Gemma and producer Kat decided early on that the idea of the Green Town was one we wanted to explore. We were aware of the climate crisis, of course, but at that time we were also more aware of the green spaces locally, and how important they had suddenly become.
Much of my work, on empty shops projects across England, has bumped up against ideas of reusing old buildings, of finding space for projects with an eco bent, of the benefits of making things, repairing things, sharing things and shopping locally. A number of times, we have reclaimed spaces outside the shops, too, guerilla gardening in overlooked flowerbeds or holding ad hoc events.
And ten years ago, because they were interested in that work, I worked with senior people at Unilever in London and Italy as they gave the global company a new sense of environmental responsibility.
I became interested in this stuff when Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth supporters turned an old shop in Worthing into an ‘Eco Centre’ in the 1980s. As a teenager, that action – creating a space for radical discussion, for seeding activism – was inspirational.
When Unilever are talking about the things that had once been discussed only on the radical fringes – you know it’s time for change.
On a global level we’re facing Climate Collapse, with rising tides and increasing migration, while on a local level we’re dealing with issues from the Stink caused by ongoing problems at Walleys Quarry Landfill Site, to whether it’s wise to knock down perfectly usable buildings with all the carbon costs that entails. So Green Town was always going to connect local issues to global ones.
And we always knew that, while we were aware of some of the issues, there would be other artists working in such a huge subject area looking at things we hadn’t considered.
So we started by publishing a slightly-ranty almost-manifesto, as a call for artists who might be interested in the broadest themes. We asked how our empty shops might be the space for solutions to the problems climate change is creating, highlighted how planting and growing in the spaces outside and around our shops would bring huge benefits, and talked about a growing awareness that reusing buildings is best for town centres. These open calls have been part of the operating system of Newcastle Common, giving artists space to make the work they want.
We then chose from all the artists who said they were interested and created a month-long programme that included exhibitions, performances, workshops, and talks but also left space for unplanned, unexpected things to be dropped in.
Our biggest commission was something we could never have planned for, but that just felt right. In WILD | LIFE, Danny Callaghan proposed putting his mum Pat’s archive in a shop and letting people explore it. The archive records her life’s work – she died in 2018 – as an activist, a community organiser, and a campaigner. Pat was involved in rewilding, in creating pocket parks and nature reserves, and in campaigning against regeneration projects that took away green space.
WILD | LIFE is made up of literally thousands of objects including minutes of meetings, leaflets and posters, magazines and press cuttings, and physical objects – the tables she used as a desk, an A-board used at events, banners and signs, mugs with the logos of projects and organisations.
I never met Pat, bur having spent time in her archive, I have no problem calling her by her first name. It’s an intimate encounter with an incredible woman. The dwell time for the WILD | LIFE installation was high – while I was there, a number of visitors came specifically to research in the Pat Callaghan archives and spent hours reading and taking notes or copies of documents. Passers by just dropped in, but spent time following threads as they found stories about places they know.
Around Danny’s installation, we programmed a series of talks and discussions, inspired by things found in the archive – this was quick, nimble programming. Finding a couple of cuttings about local timber-framed housebuilder Peter Wilshaw, we asked him to come and talk about the homes in the cuttings. Paul Rogerson from Restoke spoke about community-led regeneration of the city’s buildings. And so on.
As well as Danny, we commissioned Jon Paul Green to produce a new set of text paintings that tied in with some stencilled street art on pavements around the town.
Alongside his paintings, we showed work by radical printers Black Lodge Press, photographer Melanie King, and screenprinter Dominic Marshall, who has been creating pop art prints on old bags from fast food shops.
We commissioned Francesca Wheeler and Chloe Rickett to roadtest their idea for an interactive show, the Green Diagnosis Van, and they also created a set of drop-in workshops to run alongside the exhibition.
When the weather was good, the exhibition spilled out onto the pavement outside the shop, with (recycled) fake grass matting and beanbags creating a space to just hang out.
And we brought in B arts and some of their associate artists to take over the shop for a weekend, staging their family show Little School of Improbable Cooking, holding cooking demonstrations using things supermarkets would throw away, and talking about why they mix food and art in their work.
With all of those elements – art and theatre, live talks and streamed demonstrations, commissioned work and ad hoc programming, in the venue and out on the streets – Green Town was a complex, layered thing. It engaged different people in different ways: as always with empty shops, for some it was just a pleasant diversion while shopping, but for others it was why they came into town. For some it was part of ongoing academic research, and for others it was the start of a new inquiry.
While visitor numbers to the shops were good, there was also significant engagement online, with people sharing links to articles and content connected to the programme. And it created discussion in the local newspapers, too. Dave Proudlove dedicated a whole column in the Sentinel to WILD | LIFE and Pat’s legacy.
While programming lots of things might have felt like inviting chaos – on some days, there were multiple things happening across a pair of spaces, sometimes two things at the same time in one space – we actually showed that people are very good at sorting themselves out.
Which reinforced the common core of all the work, that it is up to us to take action, to organise, to be the solution not the problem. And that it starts where we live, where we need to consider the impact of demolishing an old Civic Centre or cutting down an old tree in a cul-de-sac.
In short, Green Town showed us that we should all Be More Pat.”