Interrogation West Bromwich was a program of day residencies organised by Anna Francis, to look at what one artist could achieve if let loose for one day. A group of about six artists turned up that September day and were taken for a walk around the town centre with the object of then creating an intervention of some sort. Two hours to do the deed, then back to base for discussions and presentations.On to the mission; out into the streets, immaculately litter and chewing gum free, to see what is to be found. Well it’s a fruit market so what I find is fruit trays, and precious few of those when travelling in the wake of a very efficient and frequent litter lorry. I ask stall holders for empty boxes, they are amused by my outfit. I have my photo taken, then several complements on my moustache.
West Brom is a town with very apparent downsides. A visitor from outer space perched at its edge: The Public, couple of abject shopping precincts, a bus station and a bustling street market make up ‘downtown’.
A rival to The Public, The Private rises from the rubbish; ‘Enter for Savings’ is written across its glowing, pink front door; but who will make the savings, Sandwell Council or the shopper? The string around the building is a barrier to emphasise its private nature. Peer through none too convenient windows to see the tempting merchandise within.
Given the idea of regeneration, the first thought of any city council is ‘We need an iconic building’. Be careful what you wish for; West Brom got one and it cost them about three times the budget. Once lottery funding ceases they will not be able to keep it open. Tesco is anchoring a new shopping mall. My solution was that clearly The Public should be gifted to Tesco. With found materials I constructed the solution to West Brom’s problems, planning, regeneration and fiscal: The Private. The Private is a form of question to West Bromwich – since the future funding of The Public seems to be so unsure, might this controversial and expensive building on the fringe of Tesco’s behemoth of a site, not be turned over to Tesco for their use?
Having spent an hour or two on the street, where no one felt the need of helping themselves to Tesco Value toothpaste or custard powder, the piece was brought into headquarters, an empty shop, and put in the window. Here it spent a month or so, delighting passers by; particularly employees of The Public, apparently.
The Tesco redevelopment plans were criticised for lack of commitment to high quality design, uninviting pedestrian access and non-durable materials. Town Square (around The Public) was praised for the quality of its design and materials. It is immaculate landscaped with seats, pine trees and… nobody. Just around the corner is the teeming market on the High Street. A tolerably warm day; benches are largely occupied, people are hanging out, a God-botherer has a decent audience. Queens and Kings Squares, the down-at-heel shopping centres, are heaving with shoppers, flanneurs, sitters and chatters. So what will the new development do to all this?
Will all the street life transfer leaving the old streets empty, looking sadly at the backs of this inward facing retail paradise? Will the new contain seats for all the people who now come to meet and chat? Will The Public and Town Square come into their own and get a share in the bustle or continue their pristine, wall-flower existence? Do we prefer our money taken in profit by private companies or our taxes, council taxes, the Lottery, over-spent by the public sector?