Art, Community & Bittersweet Reality

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The ‘refreshing hit of reality’, promised by artist duo A-peg on the menu of their latest performance and participatory event, Lunch, with feeling, turned out to be more than a simple bittersweet lemon sorbet intermezzo. Coinciding with an angry, alcohol-fuelled confrontation just yards away, between several of the semi-permanent Bearpit residents – homeless by another name – the ‘hit of reality’ came very close to its literal meaning. For a few minutes the threat of violence hung in the air as members of the group stormed off shouting expletives and waving fists, only to return as if nothing had happened. Meanwhile, many of the guests at A-peg’s table found it impossible to avert their eyes. The cheerful cordiality with which we had been greeted had been jarred out of focus by this snapshot of daily life in Bearpit; the starter of cornichons and pickled pepper was not the only thing that left a sour taste in the mouths of diners.

“For a few minutes the threat of violence hung in the air…”

A-peg’s unique brand of off-beat humour was evident in the menu for Lunch, with feeling, which offered an intriguing range of courses, such as ‘Curiosity wrapped roast…’ with a side of ‘Crushed melancholy’, or a ‘Seasonal mix of sociability, friendliness and hope’. On arrival I was separated from my dining partner and sat between a familiar face from the Bristol art scene and a homeless man in his mid-fifties. To my left I discussed the humour in the titling of menu items, and the irony in the aforementioned doubling up of the ‘refreshing hit of reality’, while from my right I was offered pockets of wisdom about the burgeoning crowd across the way that had been so vociferous in making its presence felt. Devouring his ‘Baked gratitude served in a rich and creamy relief sauce’, my fellow diner pointed out that the group was new to Bearpit, and all were under thirty, and had been vying for social status in the only way they knew how for a number of weeks now.

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One of the core aims of the Bearpit Improvement Group (founded in 2010) is the intention to act as a showcase for local artists and groups, hence Art in Bearpit. In six months Bearpit has played host to a range of arts events including sculptural performance, a semi-permanent (and bookable) covered stage, subtle intervention, performance that engaged with residents on a personal level, a candyfloss and balloon party, and a mock-broadsheet newspaper. All of which elicited the gamut of reactions from passers-by, from curious inquisitors to crackpot conspiracy theorists, and of course the openly sceptical, whose wide-berths have been a fixture throughout the programme.

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Art in Bearpit was bookended by Vickie Fear’s The Keepers, a group performance more sculptural than performative in its manifestation. On both occasions performers were draped, almost bagged up, in fabrics ranging from garishly printed vinyl to a dayglow mesh not unlike the high-visibility materials used in the fenced-off areas of Bearpit that are still in development. For two hours the performers remain in position, and as one little boy prods curiously, a pair of onlookers are discussing whether the event is a political protest. The opening performance at the beginning of May was met with smiles and people taking selfies as they strolled into town for a Saturday afternoon of shopping and socialising. The t-shirted locals were doing their bit to will springtime’s promise (whose edge could not be scuffed by a persistently grey sky) into early summer, and the resident alcoholics were in high spirits as the Art in Bearpit programme got underway.

“Their performance is exemplary: unflinching in the shadows of Debenhams and Beefeater…”

Six months on, November 1st, and with summer now a memory the mood of the locals is as brooding as the clouds that hang low in the sky, portentous of oncoming frosts and cold-snaps: for the homeless, be they street-dwelling or squatting, winter is never easy. The atmosphere has developed a menacing edge; these are the same new locals that my dining partner told me about at Lunch, with feeling; a younger group, still angry enough at their lot in life to be readily lashing out at anyone that upsets their right to do whatever they please. The actors that perform The Keepers are a credit to their craft and their creator, Vickie Fear. Their performance is exemplary: unflinching in the shadows of Debenhams and Beefeater; unflinching in the face of angry voices from unseen corners; unflinching in the conditions as autumn gives way to the first chills of winter.

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Art in Bearpit may be over but for the next twelve months its final commission, Megan Clark-Bagnall’s Trading Post, will be accessible via Bearpit Social. After hosting An Everyday Party in June, Clark-Bagnall has again evoked the history of the location – a former trading ground for merchants both national and international – and has provided a geocached safe deposit box through which participants can find and leave their ‘treasure’. Two weeks into its life the log-book shows heavy use on days one and two, then a week unopened. It seems likely that this kind of work would be embraced by both the art and non-art community of Bearpit, if only they knew about it, so it falls on participants and producers alike to publicise its presence at Bearpit Social, the coffee and sandwich shop run by Miriam Delogu, whose recent blog post on Bristol 24/7 alluded to the source of the changing mood in Bearpit.

“The familiar faces seem to have moved on now…”

Evidently the police recently cleared out a large nearby squat occupied by over 100 people, a significant quantity of whom have taken to using Bearpit as their daily hangout. These are not the giddily drunk, age-mellowed, largely harmless homeless folk that occupied the Bearpit when The Keepers was in its first incarnation in May; these are more likely to be drug-reliant and psychologically damaged individuals who have no compunction in taking out their frustrations on members of the public. Reading Miriam’s personal blog is testament to that, and gives fair cause for concern regarding the future of Bearpit and its traders. We must hope that the positive connections made between artists, traders, and the homeless residents of the underpass in the early months of the programme were not made in vain. The familiar faces seem to have moved on now, and the new faces appear yet to be sold on the good in anything remotely social, let alone art-based.

Each of the events at Art in Bearpit has provided residents, viewers, participants and producers with food for thought – on more than one occasion literally – while providing a platform for discussion among locals, traders, commuters, and artists and producers, around the nature of socially engaged artwork. The invisible wall between the watchers and the watched was removed on day one by The Keepers; the whitewashed gallery walls that so often show art about art for the eyes of other artists seem a world apart from this one, where it isn’t necessary to ring a bell to gain entry to the exhibition.

Pavilion, Philip Cheater © Roser Diaz

“It is both a message of hope and a reminder of the impermanence of the social make-up of Bearpit.”

Philip Cheater’s Pavilion, another lasting monument to the programme, was erected in early June with the intention of being a multi-purpose structure for anything from performance, to reading groups, to shelter from the elements. Its interior entirely graffiti-ridden but Pavilion still stands. Among the messages of who performed what kind of act on whom, and general hatred of the police and surveillance, a single line stands out. It is both a message of hope and a reminder of the impermanence of the social make-up of Bearpit. By remaining anonymous its author, in an act of unknowing benediction, permits its reader to project this message onto any member of the Bearpit community, whose one permanent feature is their transience. It reads, ‘Bristol I love you, but roll-on 2016, London here I come’.

Trevor H Smith was Art in Bearpit writer-in-residence.

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