The final keynote of the 2013 Creating Spaces Conference was delivered by the endearing and refreshing Mr Dan Thompson, artist/writer and starter of many things including Revolutionary Arts, Empty Shops and the #riotcleanup and #wewillgather.
Dan once went to the local music shop to buy a CD for his wife and accidentally bought the whole shop while he was there. It didn’t work out, but that’s the point. Life is about trying and failing and trying again (as Samuel Beckett said).
The keynote actually begins with Dan’s own real life roots and a photograph of the house he grew up in (and his father still lives in), in Worthing, UK. Dan shares his first experience of reclaiming spaces and invigorating community spirit with the plot of land near the house. The plot of land was fenced off (by council?) and quickly became a dumping ground and blight on the block. Dan rang the council to ask them to clean it up and was told – “No, we don’t know who the items there belong to or where they came from (and therefore who’s responsibility it is)”. So Dan said “Can I clean it up?” – “Oh no, we don’t know who the items belong to, you might be stealing.” Face palm. Giggles all round from our listening conference gaggle.
Dan – “Fuck that, I’m going to do it anyway,” so he did and others in the neighbourhood saw him cleaning up and lent a hand.
This is where I start to get an inkling that Dan is about to join my #professionalcrush list as a top #troublemaker and the rest of his keynote does not disappoint.
Dan’s keynote covered off on a range of the fab and super inspiring projects he has both deliberately and accidentally initiated, the most relevant to Creating Spaces being the Empty Shops Network and #wewillgather, although I was interested in all of his work. I was also secretly thrilled that yet again, my new professional crush is from a theatre/performing arts background (as were the Gap Filler duo).
Dan’s sharing was framed by this quote from 60s activist Peter Coyote:
A man’s vision is his responsibility. If you have an idea, make it happen; find the brothers and sisters; find the resources and do it. Your personal autonomy and power expose the shallowness of endless theorising and debate. Visions become real by being acted out, and once real serve as endless inspiration and free food for the public imagination.
The Empty Shops network is essentially a similar idea to that of Renew Newcastle, helping people to reduce, reuse and recycle empty shops and other spaces in towns and cities across the UK. The Empty Shops website follows what the Bank of Ideas calls a copyleft policy by providing a wide range of resources on their website free to use.
Since 2008, Empty Shops is a national network of people using empty shops. In the UK approximately 15% of shops are empty and it’s mostly due to supermarkets that sell everything.
“Thanks for sending us Westfield, that’s worked out really well.” Dan Thompson
There is also a very strong online economy with approximately 10% of purchases completed on line.
Empty Shops inspired a range of mini projects such as We Are Bedford. Bedford had 100% vacancy in the high street (traditional main street). The We Are Bedford project took on all the shops and ran a festival. There is now 100% occupancy. Like Renew, Empty Shops projects operate on the idea that bringing the shops to life will bring people back to these centres and subsequently attract commercial tenants (or transition creative projects into creative tenants).
Empty Shops is a project from Dan’s organisation Revolutionary Arts.
Although not directly related to Renew, #riotcleanup has a strong philosophical link (with a lot in common again with Gap Filler) and is an interesting story in and of itself.
England actually has a long history of riot and revolt. Dan listed off quite an impressive list of riots and rebellions. Minus the very real blood, death and destruction, on one level the abstract idea of standing up absolutely and completely for what you believe in feels quite inspiring.
As many would know London was overtaken by a number of huge riots in 2011, which started in response to a young man who was shot by police. Dan is a prolific twitter user and logging on, his feed was flooded with people talking about barricading their doors and many fleeing because the violence was so bad.
This was a very different kind of riot, it wasn’t targeted at barons or lords in the vein of England’s tradition of rioting. This was violence that largely damaged every day people. People that run shops aren’t rich and often everything they have is tied into those premises.
In response to the violence and damage, Dan tweeted – Tomorrow we need to work out how to help the independent retailers. Dan thought he could rustle up 50 people to help those local shops to clean up. He asked people on twitter to take a dustpan and broom and go and help their local clean up. 12,000 people volunteered on the first day and #riotcleanup was born.
The most interesting thing about this ‘project’ is that no one was actually in charge, it wasn’t an organisation or a formal project with anyone telling you what to do. It was an idea and a movement started almost accidentally. People asked Dan “Can you organise something in Hackney?” and Dan would reply “Yes, YOU can, what time will you be there?”. They’d say 10 o’clock and so Dan would tweet #riotcleanup Hackney 10 o’clock and then 300 people would turn up in Hackney at 10 o’clock and manage themselves and each other.
#wewillgather is a similar principle that’s followed on from #riotcleanup to encourage people to organise small scale coming together and fixing/clean up in their communities in a more general sense. It’s about using social media to get people together to do a job that needs doing.
“People want to do things, but they needed someone to give them permission,” Dan Thompson
Rather than place making, Dan’s ethos is about ‘place shaking’. Place making is a formal and structured process. Place shaking is instead, informal, agile, frugal and about making networks. Place shaking begins place making.
As Dan spoke, the hairs on my arms stood up as I felt like he was putting a language to something embedded in my idea of community and care. Thanks Dan!
Named as one of GQ’s 100 most influential men in Britain last year, Dan comes across as humble, authentic, endearing and the best kind of doer and left the keynote with these rules:
- Everything starts with a conversation
- Explore, get lost, and find out what makes a place interesting ( find the little details off the beaten track).
- Reclaim spaces for public use
- Create collaborations and friendly networks, not organisations
- Test, prototype and try it together
and invited each of us to be the trim tab on a rudder. The smallest tilt can turn us all in a new direction. And his tip for maintaining energy? Lots of jelly sweets.