Site-Writing

Re: development (London: Silent Grid, 2016)
  • Jessie Brennan | Peterborough, UK

  • Jessie Brennan, Re: development (London Silent Grid, 2016). (Photo: Matthew Booth) Jessie Brennan, transcribed oral recordings, in Re: development (London Silent Grid, 2016). (Photo: Matthew Booth) Jessie Brennan, cyanotypes, in Re: development (London Silent Grid, 2016). (Photo: Matthew Booth) Jessie Brennan, exhibition of visual and audio archives (cyanotypes and oral recordings) produced at The Green Backyard. Installation view at dalla Rosa Gallery, September 2016. (Photo: Matthew Booth) Jessie Brennan, What is necessary here? (2014), photograph on billboard, 304 x 609 cm, situated at Thorpe Road, Peterborough. Installation view. (Photo: Jessie Brennan) Jessie Brennan, If This Were to Be Lost, (2016-17), painted birch plywood on scaffold, 1.9 x 19 m, situated at The Green Backyard, Peterborough. (Photo: Jessie Brennan)
  • A derelict site in Peterborough’s city centre was transformed into a vibrant community garden by volunteers, yet for years it was under threat of redevelopment. During my time at The Green Backyard (2014-16), I worked with the people who use and care for this publicly owned, 2.3-acre strip of land in order to share the voices of those defending their right to the city. Together we questioned the capitalist logic of the proposed development by its owner, Peterborough City Council. Instead we offered alternative evidence in the form of a visual and audio archive – over 100 cyanotypes (camera-less photographs) and more than 100 oral recordings (testimonies) – for the existing social use and value of the land. 

    Re: development is a book that interweaves the threads of this project: it brings together the voices and personal experiences of trustees, volunteers and visitors of The Green Backyard in the form of transcribed oral recordings, a series of cyanotypes that document the space through its objects and plant life, ten contextualising essays which write the site from a broad range of perspectives, and photographic documentation of two artworks installed in the public realm (What is necessary here?, 2014) and in the garden (If This Were to Be Lost, 2016-17). All this was realised during time I spent in Peterborough as a year-long ‘resident’ at The Green Backyard, when the City Council was making the decision as to whether the site could continue to operate as a community garden or whether it would be sold off for redevelopment. 

    While the threat of redevelopment was ongoing the voices resisting it were stronger still: on the 27 January 2017, after a lengthy – but successful – community resistance, the land became finally safeguarded. Project outputs take the form of an exhibition, artwork and this publication.


    Biography:

    Jessie Brennan is a London-based artist whose practice explores the inter-relations between people and places, informed by their social and political contexts and a direct engagement with the individuals who occupy them. She uses ethnography and drawing (in the expanded field) as critical methodologies for revealing urban social and spatial injustices. She pushes towards their productive political use in the form of exhibitions, publications and large-scale installations in the public realm. This has led her to become involved in projects, for example, with people on public housing estates and community gardens, among others. 

    Brennan graduated from the Royal College of Art in 2007. She has exhibited extensively in the UK and Europe, and her work is held in public and private collections including the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. Recent selected exhibitions and projects include: Contraction, curated by Alan Dunn for East Street Arts, Leeds (2020); Making Space, Royal Docks Public Art Commission, UP Projects (solo, 2018-20); Your Words, South London Gallery (2017); Re: development – Inside The Green Backyard, Carroll/Fletcher Onscreen, London (solo, 2017); If This Were to Be Lost, dalla Rosa Gallery, London (solo, 2016); RESIDENT, City Gallery & Museum, Peterborough (2016); Progress, The Foundling Museum, London (2014); Talents Contemporains, François Schneider Foundation, France (2014); Coup de Ville, WARP, Belgium (2013).

    In 2016 Brennan was a Visiting Research Fellow at The Bartlett, UCL. She is currently a Visiting Tutor for MA Visual Communication at the Royal College of Art. Her authored books include Regeneration! (2015) and Re: development (2016).

    www.jessiebrennan.co.uk 


    Practices:

    Through artistic, research and teaching practice, I seek to explore spaces of resistance – the spaces of the page (font, format), subject (positionality, voice), writing (situated intervention), communities (situated knowledges), university (decolonized curriculum), and art in relation to the social, historical, material and formal qualities of a site – and how they contribute to a broader political challenge to the neoliberalisation of space. These are some of the ways in which I have been thinking with and through ‘critical spatial practice’ and ‘site-writing’.

    Jane’s ideas have continued to ripple out into the world in the form of reading lists and site-visits with the students I have been fortunate enough to meet and teach. 


    Keywords:
    Archive, cyanotype, green space, Peterborough, redevelopment, resistance

    References:

    I want to reference three people to whom I owe heartfelt thanks, those whom have specifically informed and influenced this project and have since continued to inspire how I work and live. 

    I am deeply grateful for the conversations Doreen Massey and I shared before she sadly, and unexpectedly, died on 11 March 2016 (and who had generously agreed to contribute an essay to Re: development), which greatly inspired directions for this project. In particular her conception of space as ‘stories-so-far’ offered me a critical lens through which to understand – and politicise – whom this particular place, The Green Backyard and other contested spaces, belong to. Much of this material can be found in her book titled For Space, but I also want to share here a link to Doreen’s essay titled ‘Landscape/space/politics: an essay’. It was after reading this essay I plucked up the courage to speak with Doreen in the sidelines of a conference at which she spoke, which prompted her to call me up one Sunday morning and kick-started a series of meetings and discussions. In Doreen’s collaboration with Patrick Keiller I saw her enthusiasm for working with others outside and beyond academia, and it did not seem too unthinkable to hope she might consider working with me. 

    Doreen Massey, For Space (London: Sage, 2005).

    Doreen Massey, ‘Landscape/space/politics: an essay’ (2011), accessed 8 September 2016. thefutureoflandscape.wordpress.com/landscapespacepolitics-an-essay/.

    Another person I have been fortunate to come to know well during the lifetime of this project is Dougald Hine, social thinker, writer and founder of a series of projects and organisations including the literary journal Dark Mountain. In his text for Re: development, Dougald invokes the idea of ‘magic’ to reflect upon the qualities inherent in The Green Backyard, and other volunteer-run projects, by sketching out a model – beyond that of the public and private – which instead explores them within a logic of the commons. It is his three forms of language (Inward, Upward and Outward) needed by people close to a project to enable it to survive that I have continued to turn towards in times of challenge.

    Dougald Hine, ‘Spelling It Out’, in Jessie Brennan, Re: development (London: Silent Grid, 2016). Accessed 31 May 2020. dougald.nu/spelling-it-out-the-three-languages-you-need-to-take-a-project-from-dreams-to-reality/

    One of the people I want most to express my gratitude to is Jane Rendell. I first came to know of Jane’s fierce intellect through Art and Architecture: A Place Between. In 2016, during my visiting research fellowship at The Bartlett, UCL, where Jane was my mentor, I was fortunate enough to get to know her bright mind and witness the endless generosity with which she shares her seemingly limitless knowledge and performs daily acts of care towards her students. Reading (and writing), of course, has its own particular relational qualities, and anyone who takes the time to pick up a book or scroll through an online essay by Jane will be rewarded, but in person the theories and practices upon which such books and essays are based, really sing. In particular, Jane’s practice of ‘site-writing’, in which she interweaves analysis, autobiography, archives, socio-political issues and writing in the expanded field, directly informed my artwork If This Were to Be Lost (and to which Jane’s essay contribution for Re: development responded). More recently for me, Jane’s concept of ‘critical spatial practice’, in which such practice critiques the sites into which it intervenes, continues to help me situate my work within a striated landscape. A public art commissioning landscape in which the language of intuition and everyday usage rubs up against the language of power and resources.

    Not every artist has the benefit of such a mentor and critical friendship, but every artist who has a situated practice and comes across the concepts of ‘critical spatial practice’ and ‘site-writing’ will undoubtedly be galvanized by Jane’s intellectual brilliance and generosity of knowledge, and by the feminist voice with which she speaks to the challenges of the sites, situations and situatedness in which we, as artists, architects, citizens, find ourselves.

    Jane Rendell, Art and Architecture: A Place Between, (London: I.B. Tauris, 2006).

    Jane Rendell, ‘This Subjunctive Mood of Mine’, in Jessie Brennan, Re: development (London: Silent Grid, 2016). 


    Notes:

    Read Jessie Brennan’s ‘Introduction’ in Re: development (London: Silent Grid, 2016): www.jessiebrennan.co.uk/writing 

    Read Jessie Brennan’s article: ‘Saving Peterborough’s Green Backyard: ‘It’s a point of stillness in a crazy world’’, The Guardian, 3 November 2016: www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/nov/03/community-save-public-land-peterborough-green-backyard

    Read the extended review of Jessie Brennan’s Re: development, by Matthew Thompson for Antipode: A Radical Journal of Geography: radicalantipode.files.wordpress.com/2017/04/book-review_thompson-on-brennan.pdf

    Contributing authors and essays to Re: development:
    Jessie Brennan, ‘Introduction’
    Sophie Antonelli, ‘Digging for Our Lives: The Fight to Keep The Green Backyard’
    Anna Minton, ‘The Green Backyard and The Right to the City’
    Ben Rogaly, ‘Contesting Neoliberal Common Sense: Bottom-up History and the Struggle over Urban Space’
    Barbara Penner, ‘Pee-bale Politics’
    Dougald Hine, ‘Spelling It Out’
    Robert Biel, ‘The Allotment System: Past, Present and Future’
    Jane Holder, ‘Environmental Justice in Everyday Green Spaces’
    Alexandre Apsan Frediani, ‘Fencing for Freedoms: Reflections on Negotiations Between Co-optation and Transformation’
    Maria Walsh, ‘Archiving Loss in The Green Backyard: Jessie Brennan’s Recollection-objects’
    Jane Rendell, ‘This Subjunctive Mood of Mine’

    Purchase a copy of Jessie Brennan’s Re: development book: aabookshop.net/?wpsc-product=re-development-voices-cyanotypes-writings-from-the-green-backyard


    Other projects:
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  • What Remains (2019)
  • Situated Writing as Theory and Method (2019)
  • Parts Apart Read Together (2019)
  • Fields of Awareness, (2019, 3min 18 secs)
  • 21 Orientations: An Atlas of Geographic Promiscuity (2019)
  • The Windowless Hotel Room (2018)
  • Spaces of Grief (2018)
  • Soft Landing (2018)
  • Shared Remains (April 2018)
  • Metropolitan Salem, Liuerpul (9 June – 18 August 2018)
  • Things Come Apart (21 – 24 March 2018)
  • Learn to Read Differently (2018)
  • Il Balcone. A site-writing performance (2018)
  • History begins with the vanity of kings (2018)
  • Dear Mr. Jung: Inhabiting Carl Jung’s ‘The Red Book’ (May 2018)
  • Heaton Hall: A Palimpsest (2017)
  • Location (+) (2017)
  • There’s Sand in My Infinity Pool (2017)
  • Talking Quilts (April 2017)
  • fifteen ways to cross the desert (2017)
  • Between Landscape and Confinement: Situating the Writings of Mary Wollstonecraft (2017)
  • A Ficto-Historical Theory of the London Underground (2017)
  • The Glorious Tomb to the Memory of Nothing (2016)
  • The Arrival’s Reader; A Visual Literary Criticism on The Arrival by Shaun Tan (2016)
  • Reading as Art (27 August-19 November 2016)
  • Re: development (London: Silent Grid, 2016)
  • Kjemikerens død [The Death of the Chemist] (23 – 26 May 2016)
  • Kingsland High Street (2016)
  • Foray in a Modern Reserve: An Impounding Portrait of Landuse (2016 – 2018)
  • Fall of the Derwent (2016)
  • Away from Home – Home from Away (April 2016)
  • Penguin Pool (2015)
  • Geography Lessons: Liberian Landmarks 1953-2013 (2015)
  • Women’s Anarchist Nuisance Café (2014)
  • The Writing on the Wall (after Rembrandt) (2014)
  • The Italic I (2014)
  • Designing Architecture as a Performing-Ground (2014)
  • Urban Literacy (2013/2014/2016)
  • The Disappearance: Manfredo Tafuri’s The Sphere and the Labyrinth (April 2013)
  • Folded Ground: Escape from Cape Town (2013)
  • Phantom Railings (2012 – 2017)
  • In The Emptiness Between Them (2012)
  • 10/08/12 (multispecies event) (2012)
  • An Arcades Project (2011)
  • Tideline (2010-2012)
  • The Museum of Breath (2010)
  • Slab (2010)
  • One wound. Two wounds. The body as site for writing (2010)
  • The Fluid Pavement and Other Stories on Growing Old (2006)
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