Monday, 9 March 2015

The long slow death of high street England and how culture could win itback

With time on my hands due to my shorter working week I'm struck by how the High Street varies at different times of the week. And indeed the day. there are times when it has a completely new complexity.

In his recent TED talk Dave Troy maps journeys in big cities and shows how the phenomenon I've observed plays out. Basically people and ideas don't mix much. I've observed similar and I believe the result will be the death of high street shopping. In many ways this could be a good thing and I'll explain why and what glimpses of this I'm already beginning to see.

People are habitual
It's bizarre for me who has only ever seen the high street buzzing at the weekend to see the street so empty. Weekends its swarming with 'carousel consumers', desperate to spend their hard earned cash. Knowing that they'll be back on the hamster wheel on Monday. Not just that but during the week it takes on a much darker and foreboding complexion. With those who are not otherwise occupied looking for an 'angle'. You see the same characters cropping up in a limited number of locations centering around their needs. In the same way shoppers, cafe dwellers and other city users seem to follow habitual patterns. There are a few places where society interacts at all levels, e.g public libraries. At the weekend in this location there is a good social mix there, but in the week this is not so. Without the policing apparent in other places ( see The secret life of the library security guard) this feels distinctly edgy.

So how can this disjointed situation change?
Basically we need to rewire the way people interact and their reasons for doing so. Then we need to give them time and space by encouraging shorter working week (via a vis 21 hour week).

 In his brilliant book "can scorpions smoke" Steve Chapman talks about the self consciousness of people who call themselves artists. And how this manifests itself in very young children. They gradually lose the will or ability to admit to being an artist in public. My question is:  If we organise opportunity for people to interact around art and cultural events will this nervousness change? Can we change it?

I don't think so because people who aren't interested enough or who are too self conscious will avoid it.

But, if we take the events to them, guerrilla art, art jams, ninja art, geek ups then people can and do join in. Offer the average Joe a crayon and a blank canvas and you will tempt them! But the key is you have to go to where people already are. So in a semi engineered way can we subtly change society. Not just with art and culture but through bringing together a gentle more casual clash of civilizations (more on this later).

What are the chances?
I have begun to see this already happening. Retailers and cafes where I live are starting to offer a slightly different experience. Not only can you see the art in the cafe where you can also buy it (step 1). But you can see the artists making art in the cafe where you can buy and crucially commission it! Yes art to order my friends! And you can watch it being made, beautiful.
Also you can have a go, can you cook Italian? Well not very well perhaps so why not instead of just eating it, learn to cook it too! Like wine? Learn about it by joining a bunch of strangers for a meal and taste lots of wine, in a wine shop!

Isn't it amazing when you discover an illustration of exactly what you're talking about! In Exeter yesterday I discovered the Glorious Art House Cafe. Not only does this quirky cafe have a gallery, but it also facilitates community events. I discovered Paul from (@pocodrom) just about to entertain lots of little children and their parents in the gallery. A great little cultural event aiming at bringing people together. I'm aiming to interview Paul about the cultural economy and what it's like to do this job in a future blog. The point is that many have created cafes where the children can play, but it's too exclusive. Here is an example of business diversification that can work. Not to mention lovely coffee and cakes.


Amazing rote this Wednesday opened the Guardian app Sunday and spotted this article about Hipsters by Ed Cumming. Spot on article, written around a new book and very London centric, but resonates with me as a cycling evangelist for new ways of working. Who wouldn't choose experiences over accumulating things? Is this the way forward for the planet I wonder? And can it happen here in Exeter. Well as I've described above it's started. It just takes a fe more rave souls to join the party.

The changes detailed above are already happening but I'd love to hear about more. And I'd love to hear what you think is possible!  As I've said in previous blogs were on the brink of a work and making revolution. But how we get the world of 'carousel consumers' to engage with the new entrepreneurs. And how we break down our city silos by taking culture to the people that will be the challenge.

Now hear this!
As if by magic this fantastic TED talk illustrates exactly what I'm talking about!

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