Re: development – Inside The Green Backyard
A Collaborative Networked Exhibition
Jessie Brennan, ‘Courgette’, cyanotype, from Inside The Backyard (Opportunity Area), 2015–6.
After five years hard work by its volunteers and incredible public support, The Green Backyard, a community growing project in Peterborough run entirely by volunteers, is no longer threatened with redevelopment: the owners of the land, Peterborough City Council, have offered a rolling 12-year lease. Re: development – Inside The Green Backyard is a collaborative, networked, exhibition, which celebrates the success of The Green Backyard’s campaign to safeguard land. The exhibition features cyanotypes (camera-less photographs of objects from the site) and voice recordings (oral testimonies by the volunteers) from Jessie Brennan’s work Inside The Green Backyard (Opportunity Area), 2015–16, an outcome of Jessie’s year-long residency with The Green Backyard and arts organisation Metal. More about Jessie’s residency project can be found here in an article she wrote for the Guardian.
Fabio Saulini, volunteer (Rocks)
Jessie Brennan, ‘Screwdriver’, cyanotype, from Inside The Backyard (Opportunity Area), 2015–6.
Digging for Our Lives: The Fight to Keep The Green Backyard
This piece was written for Re:development, a book brought together by artist Jessie Brennan following her year-long residency at The Green Backyard. Published before the land was finally safeguarded, it traces the journey of transforming a former derelict allotment site into the thriving community growing project that is now The Green Backyard.
Jessie Brennan, If This Were to Be Lost, 2016, painted birch plywood on scaffold, 1.9 x 19 m, situated at The Green Backyard, Peterborough. Photograph by Jessie Brennan
In early 2009 we first opened the gates to a site in Peterborough that had been closed and unused for 17 years. A 2.3-acre site in the city centre, next to two main roads and the East Coast main line to London should not be hard to miss, but after almost two decades of disuse many people had simply forgotten it existed. I’d like to say that we knew what we were doing at that time, but as is often the case in voluntary groups, the creation of what would become The Green Backyard was motivated by the seizing of an opportunity, in this case offered land, together with a tacit sense of need: to preserve years of learning created by my father on his allotments; to create a space for people to learn and change; and to challenge the momentum of the city, which in my life-time had seemed stagnant and apathetic.
At the time I could not have articulated these motivations, and I am now very aware that my own impetus is likely to have differed from others’ around me. I find this to be the case with many community spaces: everyone comes to them with their own very personal set of hopes and needs which are often complimentary, and occasionally divisive.
The lessons that grew out of those undefined early experiences of creating a shared space made visible the participatory qualities inherent to the project and fired up the desire for imperfect spaces – rather than meticulously planned ones, with defined budgets and personnel. The threat then imposed by the land owners, our City Council, in response to the slashing of local authority budgets following the 2008 financial crisis, actually served to crystallise this value and catalyse a movement of enthusiasm for radical change in a city long-complacent and passive.
The battle to stop the land being sold off for development, I think, surprised everyone. First came the obvious shock when council officers arrived just a few days before Christmas in 2011 and told us of their intention to sell the land… [continues here]
Contesting Neoliberal Common Sense: Bottom-up History and the Struggle over Urban Space
This piece was written for Re:development, a book brought together by the artist Jessie Brennan following her year-long residency at The Green Backyard in Peterborough. The invitation gave me a chance to reflect on my own encounters with The Green Backyard, and the potential its struggle represents for contesting both corporate-led regeneration and neoliberal common sense. My piece in Jessie Brennan’s book follows earlier writing in which Kaveri Qureshi and I discussed The Green Backyard alongside other challenges to, and assertions of, the right to this provincial city.
Jessie Brennan If This Were to Be Lost (2016), painted birch plywood on scaffold, 1.9 x 19 m. Photograph by Matthew Robinson, trustee of The Green Backyard.
The question that drew me to Peterborough in 2010 was about belonging in Doreen Massey’s terms: who the place belonged to. The question had to do with land ownership, from the historical power of local landed gentry and the 900-year-old Anglican Cathedral, to contemporary property developers, food sector capitalists and the business of accommodation provision for recently arrived migrant workers. It also built on another of Massey’s ideas in the same essay that resonated with the findings of my earlier research with historian Becky Taylor at the Larkman Estate in Norwich: the possibility of interests emerging in common between those displaced through migration to work in low-paid jobs and those who have experienced economic dispossession while staying still. As Massey put it, ‘[m]aterially, and in terms of power, the “national” working class (of whatever ethnic origin) has no more ownership than does the recent migrant.’ This idea, always political as much as academic, has assumed ever starker relevance through the present decade in the face both of rising far-right nationalism, anti-migrant and anti-Muslim sentiment on the one hand, and the onward march of neoliberal urbanism on the other… [continues here]
Links to other exhibits (in alphabetical order)