Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park, London, was once the symbolic epicentre of free speech, a concept mirrored in city and town public squares wherever people were entitled to speak their mind or insisted on doing so. Nowadays the web with its low-to-no-cost publishing tools and reach is painted by some as the best forum yet for posing that question asked by people across time: why wasn’t I consulted? But never mind the internet, what about plaques themselves as public feedback mechanisms?
Shrugging off the mantle of news bulletins and potted biographies from the past, an art project staged in 2008 cast a series of plaques spread over three streets as a loosely joined public platform for sharing present-day thoughts, located beyond normal consultative channels and boundaries.
Peer Plaques, in the town of Burnley, Lancashire, featured a selection of quotes from residents in response to the question: “What is your first thought when you think about your neighbourhood?”
The blue markers, in this context, worked like a material analogue to what technologist and author David Weinberger described (in his 2002 book Small Pieces Loosely Joined), as the distributed web of hyperlinked documents that upended the top-down and one-way media paradigm which had dominated the pre-web era.
One of three artworks commissioned by Burnley Borough Council under the Burnley Public Art Project, Peer Plaques was the outcome of a two-year residency in which an artist-architect team made up of media artist Kevin Carter and civic Architects facilitated discussion with locals about the present and future effects of regeneration – specifically Housing Market Renewal (HMR) in Burnley. Various concepts were evolved by the team from this process, but as economic issues bore down on the overall project, Peer Plaques became the focal point for the project to deliver.
A reversal on the (albeit not universally adhered to) norm of plaques focusing ‘objectively’ on ‘notable’ folks of yore and deeds of ‘historic’ import; the project foregrounded ordinary people’s views, sharing their opinions about their area and some stories about how they got there. The inscriptions were uncompromisingly subjective, spoken from direct experience.
The final outcome saw plaques installed on the very same boarded-up houses in three of Burnley’s terraced housing regeneration areas that had been targeted for regeneration but had yet to be demolished.
Forming a visible counterpoint to the media gauze of shiny, redevelopment happy-speak, these location-based bulletins were shooting from the hip. At street level, officially sanctioned history and PR airbrushing were nowhere to be seen…
Not only was the strategy and progress-based language that framed official communications in press releases and the local media notably absent, an eerie quality also pervaded the plaques and their contents when seen in situ. They were at once unconventional and familiar, transmitting messages immediate and ghostly.
In unison they were a pointed reminder that culture and history are made up of multiple contested viewpoints; how could you possibly harmonise them into one anodyne and uncomplicated narrative? In turn the quotes are evidence that history started not only within living memory but a second ago.
While the answers themselves range from strident local pride and unexpected reveries to complaints and demands, another interesting detail is that the myriad perspectives voiced through the plaques also root and convey themselves in different time contexts: retrospective, present, and future-tense. They encompass an ambiguous mention of the local skate park, an upbeat anecdote of a move over from Northern Ireland, and even ambivalence about having an opinion at all.
In terms of the sum meaning, the comments can’t be separated from the physical backdrop – the speakers no longer occupy the spaces; the terrace houses are empty shells ready to be bulldozed, a stark reminder of changing times. No wonder the oral testimonies proffered by the plaques look back and forward and feel disembodied when there’s soon to be no ‘here’ here.
Regeneration is typically styled as a grand plan, offering individualised hope (in this case) in the form of a little castle to call their own for everyone, but the plaques reveal this isn’t an unqualified good. The question remains: what does regeneration do to local attachments, to patterns and reference points that have been established? The narratives of the residents come from a transition zone where instability reigns and shared memory, already fragile, is about to be overwritten in the most literal of terms.
It’s not uncommon to get the sense that regeneration is largely done to people not with them; but the cross-currents of meaning uncovered when local voices can be heard unfiltered suggest a different approach might follow if more priority was given to the intrinsic value of being consulted. In the interim, we’re left to ponder in whose image, and from whose point of view is reality being re-modelled?
Thanks to co-lab media artist Kevin Carter and civic Architects, who have shared the photographs of the plaques with Open Plaques under a Creative Commons license. Some of the plaques no longer exist as the area has undergone phased redevelopment. We aim to act as an online archive and point of reference for lost plaques as well as those due to be removed.