You get to know the place where you were born and brought up, don’t you?
You know what you like and what you don’t like. And have a picture in your mind about what that place is like.
But it’s not often you get the chance to see that place through somebody else’s eyes. As a proud born and bred Gravesender myself, I’m very interested to see how our community is perceived by somebody – ‘an outsider’ – with a fresh perspective on the very familiar.
At the beginning of March, artist Anne Langford issued an invitation on Facebook for residents of Gravesham to get in touch with her. She wanted to hear about what it is that people living in Gravesham take pride in, and what it is about the borough that makes them proud.
Anne admits that she ‘loves chatting and is a little bit nosey’, but her request was not made just out of idle curiosity – something to keep everyone amused during lockdown – but to initiate a month-long Arts project that she is undertaking, in partnership with Gravesend’s independent, floating art space and performance facility, LV21.
The Arts Council England funded project, called Pull Up A Chair, is a research-focused project run by Brighton-based organisation Quiet Down There, exploring how residents and communities participate in and enjoy (or don’t enjoy) arts and cultural activities. A longer term objective for the independent arts organisations involved – in Gravesham’s case LV21 – is to plan what more they can do to involve local communities in arts and cultural activities.
Pull Up A Chair offers a new spin on the familiar concept of an artist-in residence: one that was developed through a collaboration with Apexart based in New York City. In this model, instead of embedding an artist within an institution – a university, museum or art gallery, for example – artists are asked to immerse themselves in a community for a month, experiencing what it is like to live, work and play there.
Artists are paired with locations of which they have no knowledge, and which they have never visited previously. The idea is that they approach their work with no pre-conceptions about a place or its communities.
During their residency, artists are asked not to produce artwork but, instead to follow an intense programme of activities around the locality, to meet the people, and to report on their activity via social media.
The Gravesham project, which has a loose theme of ‘pride’, is one of three linked residencies each of which has been affected by the pandemic.
In Luton, a collaboration between artist Alex Parry and Revolution Arts has now been completed but was cut short by the pandemic. And the project in Swale, Medway, with artist Chloe Cooper and Ideas Test, was reimagined because of Covid, and took place in June 2020. You can read Anne’s reflections on the loss of Arts projects during the pandemic on her blogpost Resorcing the Ruins.
Pulling up a virtual chair
Anne Langford’s residency in Gravesham was due to begin in March 2020, but COVID put paid to that. Funding constraints meant the project had to be completed this financial year, so Anne has been challenged to develop the model even further, by looking at what can be a achieved through a ‘virtual residency’. In fact, Anne has only visited Gravesend twice – once before the project started to meet everyone at LV21 and once, as part of the project, for a solitary walk around Trosley Country Park which she reported on in her blog. The rest of the time, she has explored Gravesham via her computer, from her home in East London.
‘It’s been interesting finding out how to do this remotely, and how to get some sense of immersion in the project when, essentially, I’m in the same flat I’ve been in for a year,’ Anne says. ‘So I’m sitting here with a little bottle of water from the Thames at Gravesend and a little pot of soil from Elizabeth Gardens. I’ve got some ropes from LV21, a piece of flint from Trosley Country Park and some chalk. I’ve been on a Google Earth tour and let myself get lost in Wikipedia.’
If the project had run to plan, Anne would have lived in Gravesham for a month and followed a schedule of events – maybe volunteering at the Food Bank, or joining a yoga class – talking to people she met. She was particularly looking forward to ‘ship spotting with Betty and Arthur’! But beginning the project in lockdown, although she had a number of telephone calls lined up with notable residents, Anne wasn’t sure she was meeting the people she really wanted to reach.
‘I thought how do I get out and meet some of those “other” people, because the project is about starting new friendships and relationships with people that don’t know about LV21, or LV21 don’t know about them,’ Anne explains. ‘So I asked, do you mind if I just go on Facebook – there are a lot of Facebook groups all over Gravesend – and let me see if they’ll let me post and say hello. And it’s turned into this phenomenal source of people who I probably wouldn’t have met another way.’
Through her Facebook page, Anne has begun to make contact with the everyday community groups that meet around Gravesham. She’s discovered the Harvel Hash House Harriers (a drinking club with a running problem); the Chalk Village Gardeners Club; the supper club in Higham Village, run by a chef that, in normal times, sells out just from people in the village; and a local Beaver group. She’s also spoken to some local personalities, like Genny, The Confidence Queen , a conversation that left Anne ‘fizzing with energy and joy’.
‘At the beginning of the project I was feeling a little despondent,’ Anne says. ‘And now it has turned into a really joyous thing. I’m just loving connecting with all these people ready to share – sending in photographs and saying, I’ll put you in touch with so-and-so, or I’d love to meet you for a socially distanced walk. It feels like at the end of a long Covid year, Gravesham is giving me a real gift!’
It is the often overlooked stories that Anne is looking for, the ‘ordinary everyday’.
‘I read an article about how a lot of Scandinavian countries work on the basis that most of us will live an ordinary, rather than a extraordinary life,’ Anne says. ‘And because of this, they make the ordinary things in public spaces, comfortable and beautiful, as well as functional. And I’m interested in that – how if we just valued the ordinary and the everyday, our lives would be so much richer.’
Anne grew up in a small town in Worcestershire. Originally, she dreamt of being a jockey but later decided to become an English teacher. But while at university in Aberystwyth, Anne ‘fell in love with drama’ and decided that her future lay there.
After she left university, Anne landed her dream job (‘living in a caravan in the middle of Wales and earning peanuts’) working for Equilibre Horse Theatre, a company that made art and theatre productions in communities with horses.
The company, which no longer operates, presented classical riding as a theatrical art form, involving performance artists to explore the centuries-old relationship between people and horses.
‘It combined my first love, horses, and theatre,’ Anne recalls. ‘Mid-Wales is a really creative world – all the farmers are poets and musicians. It’s part of their life. So when we did an open day where dressage trainer, Georges Dewez, shared how he trained the horses and local musicians played some music and a poet performed a poem, everyone said they loved it and asked us to do it again. And from that it grew into this big theatre performance.’
When the company took a break, Anne returned to the Midlands and worked in a call centre for a bit, before moving to Belfast for a couple of years, as a producer with a small touring theatre company called Kabosh. After that, she came back to the UK, to work as a local government arts development officer for Worcestershire County Council.
‘That job was amazing!’ says Anne. ‘It’s one of the things, professionally, I’m most proud of. Because, after growing up in a small town without any theatre, I set up a rural and community touring scheme that took professional performing arts into village halls and community centres.’
But although Anne was working in the Arts and doing important work to increase access to theatre, something still niggled with her.
‘I knew I loved the theatre and I loved performing,’ she explains. ‘But I didn’t have much confidence in my own ability as an artist. I would get involved in productions but as a volunteer, rather than professionally. And then finally, in 2005, I got the confidence and the guts to put myself through drama school.’
It was a great move. She emerged from E15 in London with a Masters in Drama and her own theatre company.
Since then, working mainly freelance, Anne has mixed up working as a performer, with producing and directing shows. And, increasingly, she has become interested in making work for people who wouldn’t necessarily think of going to the theatre, telling the stories of those whose voices, otherwise, might not be heard.
More recently, she worked for 18-months with Clean Break a theatre company who work with women affected by the criminal justice system, on a show about loneliness and belonging for young women on the edge of society. She also completed another project with young people at Yard Youth in East London, looking at their experiences of being in public spaces and the treatment they receive from adults and those in authority. And she has worked with a group of LGBT+ emerging artists at the Park Theatre, in London.
‘I’m really interested in the creativity and storytelling that is there in all of our lives,’ she says. ‘Even if you don’t go to the theatre or if you say you’re not creative, we are all storytellers. Everyone tells stories, in the pub or to a friend. Sometimes theatre companies will approach you and say, “we’d like you to work with this group of people on this issue”, and that’s great! But I often think there’s been a step missed out, around spending time with people and finding out what it is that they are interested in. That’s why when I saw the opportunity to apply for Pull Up A Chair, I was desperate to do it because it was a chance, as an outsider, to find out what people like about a place and what they don’t like. To give them free rein to get excited or let off steam.
‘We tend to think of culture as something that happens on a big stage in a shiny theatre, but actually culture is the stuff we do every day – it’s the supper club, it’s the gardening group, it’s the running club. That’s what culture is and we need to celebrate it.’
Although she has only been working on the project for a few days, Anne is already beginning to form the impression of Gravesham as a borough whose identity is strongly shaped by its association with the Thames.
‘I’m really interested in the idea of an estuary and what it means,’ she says. ‘There’s constant change both to the landscape itself and to the population. The river brings people in and out, and people have come and gone from Gravesham over the centuries. It’s a place that is constantly being built up and taken down. And it seems, more recent movement is just repeating this pattern.’
Anne has also detected a strong sense of connection among residents.
‘There seem to be phenomenally rich and connected layers of community in Gravesham and people have a real affection for the place,’ she reflects. ‘And they’re not naive. There is a knowingness about the bits that are not so pretty, but it is really lovely to hear people talk so passionately about the place they live in.’
You can follow Anne’s residency journey, which ends on March 31st 2021, on her blog .
If you’d like to suggest any ‘must not miss this’ Gravesham places to visit, people to meet (via a phone call, online or in person when restrictions allow socially distanced outdoor meetings later in March) or stories and thoughts on what ‘pride’ means to you, please send an email to email@example.com or post your suggestions on Anne’s Facebook page.