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Feature: Coming Home, working on Liverpool

Coming Home, working on Liverpool
Interview with Ronnie Hughes & Jayne Lawless

Words, Patrick Kirk-Smith

I would struggle to name a local crisis that hasn’t been picked up on by artists, but one that made headlines when it was, was the Turner Prize winning Granby4Streets; the redevelopment of a community with art at the heart of the project. Then travel to the other side of the city, and find Homebaked, a project from a former Biennial, creating local opportunities and voices to people affected by Housing Market Renewal.

I met with two of the most influential members of those projects last week, to talk about their new collaboration, Coming Home.

It’s not an art project, in fact it’s really quite far from it, but it has been enabled by creative voices, and creative thinking. Jayne Lawless, one of the two directors (though formerly Artist in Residence), has developed an influential arts practice throughout her career. Ronnie Hughes, Jayne’s partner in crime, might not be an artist, but there is no denying the creativity and passion spilling out of his head into everything he touches.

This article might read as quite surreal in the scale of some of the comparisons I’m about to make, but that is the result of genuine excitement about the scope of what is currently happening in our city.

Look back to a recent exhibition of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood at Walker Art Gallery though, and you might begin to understand what I mean. For over a century, perhaps as a result of DaDa and the ideas surrounding that movement, art has been a visual thing, something bound to galleries, separate from court and academia, at least in a public perception. But at the time when the work in that exhibition was being produced, artists were people of influence.

Not simply the influence of fashion, or of culture, but of politics and social change. Upward mobility was hugely achievable by those who chose a career in the arts. But then something happened, perhaps Art Deco, perhaps the availability of design, or of mass production. Art became a commodity rather than a comment, and over many years it has clawed its way back, and now it is plain to see, in local communities that are building voices and making change happen. Not just in whether or not we do something, but in how we do it.

Ronnie and Jayne in one of the Granby4Streets houses
Ronnie and Jayne in one of the Granby4Streets houses

I wanted to know more about these two though, and more about why they were doing what they were doing. The biggest influence on them seems to be community space, or, as Ronnie said “We’ll drive into an area in a van that says Coming Home”:

So what is Coming Home?

Ronnie: Well, Coming Home is a way of getting all of the empty homes in Liverpool, potentially in the country back, into use. We’re an open source project and we’ll help you set one up if you like.

We’ve got 260,000 empty homes in the country, we’ve got 9000 in Liverpool. It’s just too many. Especially as we have a housing crisis where people are either living in decently priced very poor accommodation, or decent quality accommodation that they’re paying through the nose for. Neither of them are right so there’s loads of people in housing need right across the spectrum.

We’ve got investment in Coming Home and we reckon we can attract more as we go along to be able to bring money into the empty homes. The way we see it, some empty homes are empty because people are sitting on the property until the property value goes up, but most people would probably bring homes back into use if they just had the relatively small amount of money it would take to do it. But who’s got £5-6,000 hanging around doing nothing? Hardly anyone. We can bring the money in to help them to get the home back into use.

We want to know what’s going on in each street, what’s the story? Generally, empty homes occur in ones and twos in streets, so we want to get them before the street starts growing the kind of blight that you see in Welsh Streets, or that you saw in Granby. Because once there’s a few empty homes in a place, everybody who can leave does.

So we’re trying to deal as early as we can with the empty homes before they fall in to serious disrepair. The longer houses are empty the more its costs to fix even the smallest faults. Y’know, the small leak becomes the serious structural damage. We ought to get in as early as we can to stop that happening. It’s quite a simple idea.

Jayne: So basically, say for arguments sake, you inherited a house, but the house is in a worse state than the one you’re living in but you haven’t got the £10,000 it might take to get it back up to speed. Well Ronnie and I have got a loan from the Beautiful Ideas Company.

We had to pitch Ronnie’s model on how to get around that. We’ll get everyone in, we’ll organise the builders, and the legal side of it. You just have to say, “Look, we’ve got no money”. We put in the 5 or 6 grand (at the moment up to £10,000). And when you rent it out, we’ll take the rent until we’re paid back.

That’s it. That’s quite simply how it works. And, like Ronnie said, we want to take care of Liverpool, but its open source. So say, a group from Newcastle wanted to do the same thing. Well we just give them the model.

It’s not just about the money though, it’s about having the will. There are a lot of people who could do it that don’t.

You’re an artist Jayne, and Ronnie, your background’s in housing and social enterprise, but also as a filmmaker working within creative projects as well. How does art fit into all of this, what role does it play?

Ronnie: Well it was a conscious decision. If regeneration in the standard way was going to work it would’ve worked years ago. But I think regeneration’s too mechanistic. It continually fails to involve the people who are going to live in the houses.

Jayne: I learned so much from Jeanne van Heeswijk, the Biennial artist, brought in to produce Homebaked in Anfield. When she was brought in, she was the one who insisted that if it was to be in an area like ours she had to be there for a minimum of four years. I work the same way, I’ve done loads of residencies. I always think of myself as an artist in residence in whatever I’m doing. Because I’m me.

So Coming Home isn’t something I separate. And watching what Jeanne did, and watching what she did all over Europe really inspired me, seeing first-hand the power of art. You don’t have to go around giving it a name and calling it art. It just is, because, I am. It just is because Jeanne is. It’s how people live, and artists tend to be autobiographical. You’re not separating your life. You don’t stop. You don’t go over to the corner and say, I’m going to go and be an artist. It’s all the time.

It’s all about the creative mind, and how you think. Like Ronnie says, he knows everybody in housing, but they tick boxes, and have to stay within guidelines. We know that we don’t need a list, you can make it up as you go.

Ronnie: Since we kicked into operation three weeks ago, it’s been an intense dialogue between us two about how we’re doing this.

How are we doing this? What would work? And we are deepening the original idea by exploring it. By going out and exploring places, seeing places, engaging people, talking to them. Y’know.

Jayne: And every scenario that’s happened so far, we just didn’t think would happen. I always say to Ronnie, it’s like I’m doing a degree, and he’s my mentor. And as I say, through Granby and through Homebaked and talking all over Europe about CLTs, we know that there’s this room to get it out of just the housing question.

And we know from doing the Heseltine lecture that people are genuinely interested in what artists think for a change.

Ronnie: I think one of the most interesting things is our dialogue. We’ll sit and talk it through with other people. This is the fourth time we’ve done this in the last week, sat in front of a Dictaphone (second time today). This is the art of coming home; Conversation.

Jayne: What’ll happen is, whoever we’re sitting with, having this debate, this discourse. They’ll go off and get back to you, and tell you what they’re thinking.

The people who tell us what we should – we’ve banned the word should – be doing… We just have to look and say, “Well yeah, we’ll go solve world hunger while we’re at it.”

Ronnie: We’re not even about empty shops, we’re about homes. That’s enough. That’s complex enough in itself.

Jayne: We got really fed up in the Bakery with people saying, “Here’s what you should do.” But all you can think is, “Why don’t you?”

I remember at Heseltine, one guy in particular who said “Well it’s all well and good highlighting it, but what are you going to do next?”

Ronnie: Well this. This is the answer to what we’re doing next. Jayne’s film was the background, and Coming Home is the response.

Jayne: Ronnie came up with the name, Coming Home. Because we wanted this to be about Homes, not houses. It had to have that poetics of space.

Ronnie: Housing in the old sense is about coming into an area to ‘save’ it. How dare they? How dare they call this street or that street something that needs revitalising? That street’s perfectly fine, but up the other end is an empty house. It’s about working out what the people on that street most need, and who most needs this house. And that’s not done by badmouthing an area. Is not done by driving into the area in a van that says those things on the side. We’ll drive into an area in a van that says ‘Coming Home’.

Jayne: From the arts perspective it’s trying to cancel out the cold or clinical. When you see the word Housing, people just repel! What I tried to do with the film (Ghost Mural, with Janet Brandon) was to try and make it beautiful. An example though: The love I get from the film by Jeremy Deller, The Battle of Orgreave, I’ve never since been so moved by a piece of art. I stumbled across it in the Tate, and I’ve still not gotten over it. So you’ve got gritty work like that that blew me away, but then I’ll stand and stare at Autumn in Murnau by Kandinsky. Well how do they marry up? That’s what I see here. You can still tell a political story, whether its art or housing, and make it poetic.

You can still make that something, stunning.

Ronnie: We learned from how we did the Granby Houses too. There’d been a few problems on the first few houses, but once we got the right contractor we settled into them. We worked on them with great care and loads of ideas. Some of the best ideas were had by the tradespeople working on the houses.

Jayne: You’ve got spend time in a space. Even the office here. How many times have I changed my mind about what colour these walls are going to be? I’ll make my mind up when I’ve settled.

Ronnie: And in Granby we all skit at the Turner – even the builders. One day, one of the plasterers had gone off for a driving lesson, and the builders called me into the house. They said “we’ve done a sculpture”. He’d taken all his plastering clothes off in the house and put his real-world clothes back on. The others had laid his plastering clothes out on the floor, and his tools, and his helmet, and they were joking “look, it’s the Turner Prize sculptor”.

In Granby, the prize gave everybody working on the houses permission to enter the dialogue, and those last three houses so peaceful in the way they feel. The way they were made.

So now, we want to do beautiful peaceful houses that feel like that, and know who’s coming into them.

Jayne: Unless we’ve got, y’know, some people who are really into the Prodigy, and they don’t want a peaceful house. They want to go wild.

Ronnie: Space for them to be themselves.

  •  Find out more about Coming Home here