avenues and alleyways
Winter Market 3rd December 2022
As many of you will know, part of Creative West End's remit is to leave exciting legacies in the local area once its funding has come to an end - legacies that are sustainable. The Creative Market will certainly be one of these. For the few months leading up to December however we were working on another legacy - which had the working title "Agora". Agora refers to an ancient Greek meeting place where important business and social events took place.
At first we had considered making a big shelter - but as our conversations developed (prompted and assisted by our creative critical friend, the artist Heather Peak Morison), we found that our interests lay rather in developing connections with a standout feature of the West End: its alleyways. Other cities and towns take a pride in their alleyways - Brighton (the Lanes) and Kendal (the Yards) to name but two.
Ours have for too long been undervalued and neglected, places to avoid on account of their appearance or because of what happens there. We felt it was time to take back ownership and show people how, through artistic interpretation and intervention, the alleyways could enhance the cultural layout and impact of the West End. Accordingly various groups and individuals prepared dance routines and theatrical performances, created augmented reality visions, painted portraits of local residents, recorded soundscapes, wrote scripts and poems. My initial impression had been that the alleyways resembled a labyrinth - I introduced this as a concept and thereafter the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur was used to join together all parts of the enterprise (especially the AR) - though some more loosely than others. I was mainly concerned with the Augmented Reality development - which required my having to learn the basics of Blender - at times a baffling experience. It was worth the suffering, however, just to see my blender Minotaur, with outstretched arms and blazing eyes, appear out of thin air round a corner of one of the alleyways.
Creating the Minotaur - click the right hand arrow to see the finished Monster
In addition I wrote small narratives and poems to accompany each augmented reality vision. The fruits of our labours were displayed at the 2022 Winter Market - an immersive experience for the public - very much a prototype which we hope to develop further in the future. It consisted of a guided journey through the alleyways, past dance troupes, past tiles imprinted with QR codes (created by a local ceramicist) that brought legendary figures to life, and to a theatre in a burnt out garage - seating for this latter being set up actually in one of the alleys. The journey was undertaken twice - the first drew an audience of about 20 people which increased to almost 40 for the second viewing - resulting in several members of the audience having to stand for the concluding drama. Undoubtedly a success. My principal role on the day was as the guide - at times (especially during the second performance) I felt like the Pied Piper leading away the village children!
Following this introduction, I have assembled the thoughts and reactions of others who took part in the project as well as those who witnessed it.
Zine Alleyways Map
My part in the Agora project was all about zines. I created two Zine Libraries from up-cycled office and library furniture. One for the Nib Crib and one at the Good Things Collective Studio. The Libraries work as a way of informally sharing the knowledge and stories. The zines can be inspiring, then borrowed, replaced or passed on. Zines are a D.I.Y, fun, cheap and accessible form of expression: a ”mini magazine of a moment”.
For the Avenues & Alleyways project I designed a folded map zine with info about the Creative West End Winter Market along with the route of the AR, Dance and Theatrical Happenings in the alleyways of Morecambe's West End. I loved being a part of this amazing collaborative project which showed off the huge array of Morecambe talent and innovative ways of reimagining the alleyways and bringing them to life.
Augmented Reality In The Alleyways
I was initially surprised when Jess said she was doing an AR project with QR codes in the alleyways. I'd got it in my head we were making a short film about bog creatures that lived in the bay, so this was a surprising pivot, but I did think it sounded fun. I worked on a project (sadly never realised) where QR codes were to be placed around the town of Bishop Auckland and a kind of fun trail for people to follow with their phones which you could see artists' ideas of how the different parts of the town could be improved and also upload your own ideas, so I kind of got the idea of a trail of QR codes and thought the AR sculptures was a neat idea, remembering that the QR codes could also be reused, so different artists could put different styles of work in, fine art, community art, audio/sonic art anything that you can deliver over the web, including interactive narrative games, so that was the hook really, make a real world 'interface' of QR codes in the alleyways. The AR bit was interesting too, but it was the idea of making the QR code trail in the alleyways that motivated me most at that point.
Things changed quite quickly after that and I lost track of things a bit, when I next checked in with Jess everyone had agreed a project, a bit smaller than the one that was mentioned before, but I thought that made sense, given the time and resources. A theme of the Labyrinths of Greek Mythology was put forwards which I knew very little about but I liked it, it seemed good for scope and there was a strong narrative to glue everything together. I think that's important. I used to work in computer games development, and have done a few digital art projects and in my experience if you have a good narrative to build on, technical limitations can be accommodated, whereas the other way around, good tech with a poor narrative just doesn't have soul, it's just like a flashy technical demo and people don't really engage with it as emotively. So I was pleased that part seemed to be strong. Contrary to this, in a way, when we walked the alleyways for inspiration of what our digital AR sculptures would be I got attached to the idea of making a street sweeper, which is not something they had in the Greek labyrinths, but I couldn't shift the idea and was very pleased with how Jules wrote a part of the story incorporating it, I liked it a lot.
Creating the Labyrinth Sweeper - click the right hand arrow to see the final image (you can see that he is sweeping up feathers - these are the feathers of Icarus whose father, Daedalus, had invented wings to enable both of them to fly - alas, Icarus flew too close to the sun - his wings melted and down he tumbled - Daedalus was said to have designed the labyrinth).
So it was hard to find time to do the AR work in Blender, I started that but I did become quickly concerned about the web side of the project. The website that displayed the AR seemed at first like it would be simple, but long story short, it wasn't - and I had to learn quite a bit in a short space of time, and well the first time it genuinely worked well enough to create the AR sculptures well enough, at the right place, at the right time (download times on a phone in an alleyway are not always great) was on the morning of the event, even then it needed final adjustments to size and position of the AR. I was about half an hour ahead of the first group of alleyway walkers, balancing my laptop on a wheelie bin, adjusting data files that control the AR, uploading them, refreshing my phone, rinse, repeat until it looked right, then run to the next one. Who knows what the people in the surrounding houses thought of me, balancing my computer on their back wall and walking in circles whilst looking at my phone cursing. I did get the job done in time to join the second walk in the afternoon, and I really loved it, I hadn't seen any of the other work that was going on, the dances, the plays, the singing, by the end I was so pleased, exhausted yes, but very happy to have been involved and experienced it.
Chelseys’ Community Belly Dancing, Anthony and Stephanie's Jazz Swing Dancers, Extinction Rebellion's Discobedience
I was so grateful for the beautiful cold crisp winter day with blue skies. I was excited when I saw the Jazz Swing Dancers waiting in their alleyways as I headed to our alleyway.
I enjoyed waiting eagerly in the alleyways with my dance group including one of our members that dressed up as Santa and ourselves wearing red that represents to the group the blood that connects us all.
It was so great to see the West End community had turned out well, to see what us artists had been up to and what we had created; feeling very supportive. In the alleyways we were greeted with eager smiling faces and it was a lot of fun! I loved dancing in the micro garden for my solo belly dance. The morning and evening performances both felt so different.
The morning with the bright sun shining and the afternoon dancing in the shadow since the sun had already left. It was so special to have that little haven of nature in the back streets of the West End, where I felt at home to share my dance. It was definitely a surreal feeling! On the day I said why do I always come up with these crazy ideas, some part of me wanting to back out and of course afterwards so happy I did it, and so glad to be part of a creative group in Morecambe's West End.
Chelsey Needham, Dancer, Yoga Instructor And Holistic Therapist
Footsteps Of The West End
In the Agora project a More Music team of Ash Murphy and Saffi Amber put together a film and audio piece about walking around the West End. This project gave a young creative the chance to develop her skills in film making and sound art under the guidance of an experienced professional.
It was a great opportunity to listen to the sounds and search for new sounds you don't usually think about.
This was the same with the film - it was great to take a walk down streets we don't usually visit. It was wonderful to be part of a collaborative project with lots of other local creatives and see how digital art in particular could be used in new settings.
Ash Murphy and Saffi Amber
The Creative West End Community AR Project
On the 22nd August 2022 I put out a call in our Facebook animation group for anyone who'd be interested in helping to create an augmented reality project that could feed into the wider Agora project that Creative West End were running. It was a big gamble, I'd been learning Blender (an open-source 3D animation software package) for the past year, but the learning curve for this program is steep and I was still very much a novice. However, I'm the type of person who relishes a big challenge and I was keen to see what we might accomplish through collaboration. My initial idea was to keep things very simple and manageable - not to push ourselves too hard for this pilot project and just use it to get a feel for the technology involved.
The initial plan was to create 5 models that were sculptural signposts. These human figures would be placed at intervals around the West End alleyways and would guide people through as though they were in a maze. I was incredibly lucky to have 4 very talented local creatives sign up to help with the project (Jules, Nick Hellier, James Cat and Andrew Morris) and we met up with the wider Agora team, just ahead of the funding procurement session, to describe the idea and gather some feedback.
(Stages of Nick Hellier's creation of the ballooon girl - from blender to AR)
This meeting ended quite disastrously for the original plan with the scale of the locations being altered and the idea of using people as the main figures being questioned. Three days to go and everything seemed to be pulled down and nothing put back together again. I had a bit of a spin, but I knew it was a project worth fighting for so we went back to the drawing board, scaled back and rearranged the project to better suit the needs of the upcoming market. It was well worth the effort as we were successful in our funding bid.
We had a good general idea in the early stages of what we wanted to do. We wanted a narrative, perhaps a theme to work within. We wanted to use Meshroom 3D photogrammetry software to create our models and we wanted it to have an element of interactivity. However, it was early days and we were an untested group, there were of course more surprises and challenges to overcome! First, we tried starting with a narrative, but it soon became clear that this was the wrong approach- a seasoned writer's mind will always produce narrative flourishes that could not be attained by novice 3D modellers and new, less-developed technologies. So we altered the approach and each created a model knowing that Jules would be more than capable of tying them together in a fantastical narrative and he didn't disappoint us. Both Jules and I were part of the Agora project, we'd spent six months discussing our thoughts on the alleyways and so naturally our ideas fell into the same thought patterns. The alleys as a labyrinth, a maze to be mapped, explored and discombobulated by. Nick and James were not part of this wider project and so their models were more personal to them, but still, through more discussion and collaboration Jules unpicked an epic tale and encompassed them all. Part grounded in the alleys, part shrouded in Greek mythology and mysticism. It was haphazard, but it all came together wonderfully in the end. It was a really magical event.
(Jessica Holmes AR models: The Portal Keeper and Ariadne, caught in a web on a gate)
The technical side of the project also had its challenges. Our original plan was to overcome some of the issues we faced as novice modellers by using Meshroom. The idea was that each of us would be photographed about 40 times from different angles and these photographs would be fed into Meshroom software which would triangulate the position of each shot, build up a full 3D picture based upon the 2D images and then use this to create a 3D mesh of our bodies. It was experimental, we knew it was risky because people can't keep still and this can cause issues. The results came back with mixed success. Some had arms and legs missing, some were only the top or bottom half of the body and there were odd irregularities in the mesh. They were very interesting from an artistic perspective, but (although we tried taking the photos indoors and outdoors, with extra lighting and without) most were unusable for this project. So most of us had to learn how to box model our figures from scratch and actually, this wasn't too difficult and probably we gained better results and we certainly gained a crash course in Blender skills!
Aside from the modelling, we also had the AR itself to contend with. We soon realised that creating files for AR (as novices with little knowledge of work around) presents many limitations both in terms of file size and the types of information they will display. We had to troubleshoot each model using an online viewer before uploading it. We also knew that we wanted the work to be as accessible to the public as possible, but that the more user-friendly AR creation apps were built to serve either Android or iOS smartphones, but not both. To choose established market software would have been much easier, but it would have meant many users wouldn't have been able to access the works. As such, we once again chose more complex open-source software in the form of AR.js Studio as our AR host. James was a tech wizard in this department and was able to deploy additional code to the host that enabled us to move, scale and rotate the models within the app as well as adding Jules' narrative as audio files. The final hurdle after all of this was how to locate the models within the alleys? James and I experimented with both image markers and GPS coordinate based location markers. We eventually decided that location markers were the better option. With all that done we were able to generate 5 QR codes that linked directly to our models and animations and these codes were turned into beautiful ceramic tiles by local ceramicist Andy Morris of 'RAM ceramics'.
This project was a roller-coaster whirly-gig of an adventure! It was a huge team effort, everyone played their roles amazingly well given the inexperience of the whole team and as a result we were able to show the public around 5 AR models that all worked perfectly on the day. This was always intended as a pilot, the aim is to take this learning and use it to make a bigger, better public art display for the West End in the near future. When I look back I just think “Did we really manage to do that”? Yes, we did!
West End Residents
Character intrigues us all. The swirling gnarl of a tree root, the embellished facade of a hotel, the glimmer of light flashing from a crescent moon behind lofty clouds — all of these have character. But usually, we think of character as a quality of people. The philosopher Alan Watts said that just as a tree ‘fruits’, so, our planet ‘peoples’. Our planet is peopling: we come out of our environment, and to an extent, our environment comes out of us. Thus, the character alive in residents can say so much about their home soil.
This series of paintings, entitled West End Residents, explores character, voice and landscape.
Clockwise: Jim, Aous, Andrew, Zoe
It is a collection of four oil paintings completed live with the sitters in short stints, all of whom are residents of, or worked in, Morecambe’s West End. The paintings are coupled with moments of conversation which were recorded during the sittings and are displayed here.
The four portraits are of Jim Lupton, head of Morecambe’s Nib Crib writers’ group and an ex-navy sailor; Aous Hamoud, art graduate who was an artist intern, briefly living in the West End; Zoe Morris, a midwife who used to work as a life model for the art schools in London; and Andrew J Holland, an artist and teacher who lives on Sunny Slopes. It has been a privilege to paint these wonderful people, and I was surprised by how open they became during the sittings. I hope to have done them at least some justice through these paintings.
Sketching and Painting Jim Lupton
A QR code will take you to a website where you can hear the thoughts of the sitters. All images in this section courtesy of Jared Alexander.
Alleyways and Forevermore – A Performance By The Nib Crib
Saturday December 3rd 2022, the long awaited date for Creative West End's Winter Market Agora meeting, "Avenues and Alleyways." We must have racked up some karma points with the weather gods as we were rewarded with brilliant sunshine for our outdoor performances. The purpose of the Agora was to highlight the notion of opening our neglected spaces to people and the arts focussing on the backstreets of Morecambe's West End. This idea took the shape of a walk round the alleyways interrupted by exotic dancing and augmented reality featuring animations brought to life with your smart phones. The Nib Crib's contribution was our performance of "Alleyways and Forevermore": a collection of vignettes fused into a coherent performance by the backstreet theme. Written, produced, acted and directed by The Nib Crib, we staged our little show in the natural performance area of an open, roofless garage kindly loaned to us by the recently deceased John Wilkinson, a well known and gentle local character. Rest in peace John and thank you for our ideal location.
Our performance commenced with the cast milling and chatting around our set with George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue playing in the background and a milkman cameo by Roz whose wonderful set design and prop ideas brought our scenes to vibrant life.
The set was vacated to leave Val, alias Nora Hird, hanging out the washing in a fourth wall breaking improv which was both innovative and amusing. As Nora departed with her laundry the moon came up anticipating the arrival of Tom and Tabbs (Jim and Martin) a couple of anthropomorphic alleycats with a wink, a pun and an axe to grind, who proceeded to torture the audience with their "sense of humour ".
The hapless pair departed before things were thrown at them and on came Davey Becks and Tiffs for a wee kick about before bedtime and a foreshadowing of the arrival of Scruffy Jack. They depart when their mother, Agnes, calls them in. Scruffy Jack appears. A feral man, he scavenges the alleyways in search of sustenance when Agnes overhears him and recognises him as her long lost husband. Memory loss and PTSD have taken its toll on the man as he begs Agnes to take him back, which she eventually does.
Clockwise: Tiffany, Geoffrey, Zoe, Rapt Audience
HURRAY FOR HAPPY ENDINGS! and well done to Zoe and Geoffrey, Beccs and Tiffany. We all come together and attempt to sing Avenues and Alleyways by Tony Christie. The End. I'd like to say a special thank you to Woo for her wonderful costume design.
We loved it. The location. The eccentricity of the concept. The sunny day, the audience and our little play. We did two performances and found it exhilarating. We have had excellent feedback and a much bigger audience than we expected, giving our egos a lovely massage.
Left to right: Zoe, Geoffrey, Val, Rosanna, Martin, Jim, Beccs, Tiffany
We hear that the rest of the walkabout was a great success and wished we could have watched and we hope very much that the idea does not get lost as the use of functional communal spaces, for and by the community, will become more important as our public services are increasingly erased from existence. It was a lovely day and we all had a great time and look forward to our next outing as the Nib Crib.
Jim Lupton, The Nib Crib
Avenues & Alleyways –
Bringing the West End Alleyways to Life!
Saturday 3rd December 2022
Back at the beginning of December 2022, on a sharp winter day with sun, I was fortunate to experience the entirely free West End Festival’s Avenues and Alleyways tour, led by tall, imposing, poet, musician and singer Jules – an immensely likeable and informative Minotaur of a man.
We did not always follow the designated route and even to someone who lives in the very heart of these alleyways, they can be deceptive, misleading, tricky... "Backstreets" corrected one senior Morecambrian lady as we took a diagonal across the park to Alexandra Road, "we never called them alleyways". Jules tried to adjust to this, but understandably, despite the rarity of bona fide avenues in the area, the tour wanted it to be alleyways so that the once well-known anthem, Avenues and Alleyways, recorded by Tony Christie in 1973 (and used as title music for a TV series I was lukewarm about as a kid, The Protectors) could be played at frequent opportunities on fleeting sound systems. Once heard, like it or not, this distant echo perhaps of West Side Story (1961), is impossible to eradicate from the memory, although it was only later that I realised the underlying violence of the lyrics:
"Listen to a squealer cry,
Then a little later in the morning paper
Read about the way he died..."
At various points, apparently embedded in appealing ceramic tiles, mounted on designated walls, QR code generators – a total mystery to me until a friend explained them – enabled evocative instalments of Jules’ alternative Labyrinth story to play on the devices of those possessing the necessary technology. Fortunately, I was able to eavesdrop over the shoulder of a friend.
In between this virtual story involving Icarus, Ariadne and the Minotaur, around every corner of this fascinating West End minefield (you have to keep one eye on the ground mostly thanks to careless dog owners) groups of dancers and actors awaited us, no doubt freezing and willing our appearance: Anthony and Stephanie’s Jive Swing Dancers southwest of Grafton Place, the XR Discobedience group performing ‘Staying Alive’ between Westminster and Byron, and up on Cavendish Road a presentation described on the colourful and useful map provided, as “Belly Dancing”. This turned out to be a lone dancer, a woman in white, entrancingly performing what I would’ve assumed was a form of sacred Indian dance designed to honour or placate the gods...but what do I know? Sacred or profane, it was very beautiful the way she moved centrally in an arch of the foliage at the edge of the sunlight. Although the community garden which formed her arena – a small green space with raised beds of herbs and vegetables up against the end wall of a tall Victorian terrace and resembling a reclaimed bombsite – is familiar to me, her performance completely transformed and transcended the place. The often-overflowing recycling point alongside, became invisible.
Last but not least, came the Nib Crib players with their three varied and mirthful plays. But I won’t write too much, since many of them are good friends and I might be suspected of bias. Suffice it to say that Nora Hird (!), Tom Tabbs and TNT (The Dynamite Duo) and Scruffy Jack kept the well-wrapped audience amused despite that both us and them were now in heavy shade and cold wind.
An unforgettable day.
A big thank you to all those who contributed to this blog and to the approximately 50 people who were involved on the day and in the days leading up the big reveal.