How long does it take to become a neighbour?

Richard Gregory reflects on six months of co-curating Tenancy, the Meet the Neighbours project in Manchester & Salford, UK.

16 April 2019

In many ways, it feels like we’ve only just started… I guess there’s a lesson in that – becoming a neighbour doesn’t happen overnight. It’s not just about proximity.

It began with a familiar flurry of moving house, of occupying an empty shell. It’s the first brand new house I’ve ever moved to. Oddly, yet perhaps appropriately, there is something ‘theatrical’ about it – a representation of moving. We’re not really living there – we and the other artists who are part of Tenancy are somehow performing living in the house. Something of the hermit crab maybe. That makes a difference to our identity as neighbours of course….

We have to think about everything – the essentials: the heat, the light, the keys, the bins, the bills; the props of living: the chairs, the sheets, the rugs, the clock, the teaspoons; meeting the neighbours: the students next door, the fast cars out the back, the people over the road who’ve lived there for decades; the nearest shop, the route from the station, the friendliest pub, the best take-away (only just discovered – fabulous pizzas made by an Italian couple, five minutes’ walk away); the ontological frame: the everyday reality, the politics of regeneration, the visible local demographic, the discomfort of combined and uneven development, the ethics of accepting support from property developers….

At the centre of our effort to explore what being a neighbour might be has been conversation and hospitality. What can we offer you? What might we ask in return? Like I said, we don’t really live here – and the artists who stay will come and go, some passing through pretty quickly, others lingering a little. We’re seeing how our neighbours respond over time – we know already that there’s a group who come along to pretty much everything; that there are those who’ll lend us a lawnmower or a UK power adapter for visiting Belgians; those who want to have a conversation. And, of course, those who have no interest whatsoever in artists who come and go from the house at the end of the street. Why should they?

We began with Sonia Hughes and Jo Fong – regular collaborators, theatre- and dance-makers, writers, conversationalists. They made a version of their extant project Neither Here Nor There, a guided encounter between strangers, built around a walk together; a provocative introduction, a set of deepening questions, talking with a person you haven’t met before and a strict rhythm. After three buoyant housewarmings, this was the first thing. There were lots of questions from Jo and Sonia about why here, why this place, why these people… It wasn’t easy, but people came from the new development itself, from the Victorian street over the road and the tower block around the corner. Right from the start, their residency opened up questions about what we are trying to do here, with whom, to what end….

As I write this, Grace Surman, Gary Winters, their children Hope and Merrick and their dog Eider are in the middle of their fourth and final week-long stay in the house. One every school holiday since November. They’ve made a choreographic score out of the impenetrable (and predictably controversial) bin collection schedule; created a giant hand ice sculpture to welcome people arriving home from work; made a short dance film with neighbours and their children. This week they’re running drawing and print workshops, with the aim of creating a ‘zine about life on Irwell Riverside.

Belgian artists Sarah Vanhee and Flore Herman came for a week-long recce a fortnight ago – testing out ideas and methodologies for their Bodies of Knowledge project, unearthing untapped and suppressed bodies of knowledge with people they encounter. Sarah and Flore return for an extended stay in the summer, developing the work and finding ways to share what they discover.

Over the next few months, the programme of artists staying in the house ramps up – 5 more sets of people between now and November – it’s almost non-stop. We don’t know much about how they will respond to their stay, what they will create and leave behind, and this feels right. It will be fascinating to find out…

Sewn amongst the artists visits we’ve organised a host of ephemeral events and activities. We’ve laid on dinners and conversations with neighbours, emerging artists, property developers, experienced producers. Artist Hannah Sullivan invited people to sing for their supper on pancake day. 44 artists and producers booked hour-long conversations with Steve Slater. It seemed to demonstrate a real hunger for the non-institutional encounter, the creative dialogue with nothing at stake. And then, last week, 17 people brought their questions to our philosopher-in-residence, Professor Michael Brady, ranging from “Do our memories define us?” to "Can society reconcile its emotional and rational needs?". In the middle of that, another dinner, live-streamed, to talk about neighbourliness as a virtue – with Michael offering a provocation alongside peace activist Dr Erinma Bell and Mohammed Ullah, chaplain at Manchester’s universities….

Perhaps the most provocative visit, the starkest response to our presence, was a burglary. There was nobody in. Again - we’re not really living there. They ‘borrowed’ a ladder from another neighbour – the nearby builders – threw a brick through a window and crawled through an impossibly small hole. They checked if we’d hidden anything in the washing machine – we hadn’t – then rather neatly went through every cupboard and drawer. Took the big television.

These uninvited guests perhaps signal something specific and difficult about the neighbourhoods being created as our cities grow apace. The conspicuous trappings of relative affluence – shiny new houses, flash cars, No Stopping signs – somehow shout: “Look but don’t come in. Walk past but don’t linger.” Some neighbours responded with demands to gate the community, to photograph the “scumbags”, with “how dare they invade our little Utopia?”. And, of course, there are those who will argue – crime is crime and people make choices. Yet we don’t need to be criminologists to understand that real and visible division in society can be fuel for acts of illegal reparation. Putting the gates up will only – literally – heighten the divide.

We’re thinking and talking about creating an event at the end of Tenancy, in November, a performative conference of sorts, that might help us to consider what the future of our city might be as it changes its shape and size with such palpable speed. What will Manchester look like in 2029? Who are our neighbours? Who’s welcome? We live together – yes – but do we know each other? Who shall we talk to?

What we’ve learned already is that having a house to stay in - I’m avoiding the permanency of ‘live’ – is something that suits us. Our work as Quarantine, in all its forms, somehow revolves around the desire to create the circumstances for a conversation between strangers. There’s something about a domestic setting – a house on a street – for all its uneven challenges and the blurring of everyday reality with that representational construction, that feels like a more appropriate daily shell for our work than any office, theatre or gallery. I’m looking forward to the next 7 months.

Richard Gregory is co-Artistic Director of Quarantine and co-Curator of Tenancy.


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