Everyday Utopias

Exploring urban space, power and gentrification with Spaces of Dissent

Danny (R) interviewing Coen down in the Bearpit

Usually it’s me doing the interviewing, but today I’m on the other end of the microphone. I’m down in the Bearpit, walking backwards holding a giant spool of golden thread which I’m weaving between two lamp posts. My colleague Danny, from CoResist, is asking me questions on the subject of ‘development and disruption’, recording my perspective on the changes happening in the area.

Bemused and curious onlookers are watching this happen, and a number step forward to offer their insights, contributing their own ‘threads of conversation’ to the slowly evolving piece of sculpture, which is starting to resemble a giant cat’s cradle. My other co-worker Greg is standing by to make sure no one cycles into it.

The conversation continues throughout the afternoon, with office workers, students, and street drinkers all offering unique interpretations of space, development and gentrification; exploring the uses, meanings and possibilities of the Bearpit and how it should develop in the future.

All of these perspectives are represented physically by the strands between the lamp posts. The social sculpture also highlights a particular approach to generating knowledge: rather than being handed down by ‘experts’, knowledge is being co-produced between different users of the space in an atmosphere of openness and collaboration.

This intervention, which blurs the boundaries between participatory art, activism and academic research, is the latest in a series of events and workshops produced by Spaces of Dissent. An offshoot of Coexist’s original vision of promoting coexistence between communities, Spaces of Dissent originally set out with the intention of exploring the landscape of ‘heterotopias’, or everyday utopias, which various organisations and collectives are putting into practice within Bristol.

‘Dissent’ in this context, can be anything that disrupts the habits and routines (and the power structures underpinning them) that shape our daily life. In their own words, “Spaces of Dissent can be understood as any space in which people converge, challenge dominant social codes and perform new ways of being”. These can be challenges to conventional ideas about gender and sexuality, about our current economic system, food production or approaches to learning.

The event in the Bearpit was the final part in a trio of workshops, the first two having been on ‘Experiments in Governance’ and ‘Can diversity be designed?’. These workshops provided a space for other grassroots organisations and social enterprises to share their ideas, experiences and practices, in order to learn from and support each other.

Today’s event was a way of taking some of the conversations which happen within Coexist out into the public, in order to contribute to discussions about the type of community we want to live, and to ask questions such as who gets to make decisions and who gets to take part?

The result of these conversations, including photos taken by the project and audio clips from the various recorded conversations, are on display until 30 July in an interactive exhibition in the Hamilton House gallery space.