Stoke-on-Trent is the latest stop for social artist Dan Thompson, famous for place-shaking and the revolutionary arts movement. Voted by Time Out as one of the most influential people in the UK’s creative industries, as part of the Appetite project he is bringing his DIY approach to culture to Stoke’s London Road. Dan’s work covers a broad spectrum of methods and media and here will include his interest in abandoned and underused spaces along with the desire to empower local people. His involvement will last a year, during which time he will help local people to unlock their own ideas so that the influence of the project can continue into the future.
Dan Thompson explains the significance of an old wrought-iron lamppost on London Road
London Road is the busy link between Stoke city centre and the communities of Boothen, West End and Oakhill. Thompson will spend the next year collecting local stories and working with residents, with the aim of regenerating the area from the bottom up, animating and celebrating the thoroughfare. Forgotten spaces will be brought back to life and original features cherished, making London Road a more attractive and enjoyable place to live, work and visit.
At the start of the project Dan led me along part of London Road, pointing out some of the discoveries he had already made. But first of all…what is place-shaking?
DT: Place-shaking is the idea that it’s up to us and that we start from the bottom up. Rather than saying we need £10m to repaint the street and arrange street furniture, we can actually start making those changes ourselves.
DT: Without funding. So place-shaking can be guerrilla gardening, yarn-bombing…
What is yarn-bombing?
DT: It’s guerrilla knitting. I’ve seen a bench done – benches are always uncomfortable and metal, so its purpose is to do it up. Place-shaking is all that stuff that people like me do and have done for years that makes places more interesting.
We wandered along the road as Dan pointed out features on buildings, like the sculptures of the different arts on an old school. He’s discovered that this old building was part-designed by Pugin (of House of Commons fame). It becomes clear that what seems like a normal suburban road is full of interesting facts and historical links.
For example, Arnold Machin lived here. Arnold Who? Only the creator of the most-reproduced work of art in the world – although he’d probably be beaten into second place if we knew who put their hand up in 1801 and said I know, what if we superimpose the cross of St George on the cross of St Andrew on the cross of St Patrick and call it the Union Jack?
Machin owes his place as the world’s most reproduced artist to his effigy of the queen which was used on decimal coinage for years. It is still used on British stamps and it is estimated that the image has been reproduced over 320 billion times. Yet if you ask 100 people which artist created the well-known image, you will probably get 100 blank looks – unless they have recently spoken to Dan Thompson.
Machin’s local bakery – the London Road Bakehouse – is still open for business. It still has the original steam-powered ovens that would have been common in the nineteenth century. These, I can assure you, produce a high-quality scone. Try the cherry-infused one if you are passing.
London Road follows the route of a now-defunct canal. Boulders sit in nearby parks, though they owe their resting places not to the canal but to glaciers during the last ice-age. In the same place, though a few millennia later, an heroic bus driver dived in to the canal to save a child. The child survived but the driver drowned owing to the weight of his soaked uniform. There are stories everywhere.
The project has only just begun, but already Thompson has unearthed many interesting facts including an unexpected link between Stoke and Moby Dick (it involves the city’s expertise in rubber manufacture). This Appetite project is adding to the buzz created in the area by the recent London Road Festival.
One of the outcomes of the project will be a book, which by concentrating on this one street will tell the broader history of Stoke. The project lasts a year so it won’t be in bookshops anytime soon, but it will be an interesting work when it appears. Until then you can follow the project on Twitter (follow #AllAboutTheRoad) or on Facebook.