It has long since been fashionable for the art community to occupy premises in transitional stages: buildings in suspended development; spaces soon to be demolished; unoccupied and disused sites. Those with their finger on the cultural button will most likely have attended a fleeting private view or temporaneous gallery showing in some such transitory space. But in recent months this form of spatial-subversion has been taken to the extreme by a Bristol-based collective intent on exploiting the potential of the city’s discarded edifices.
Having worked with a number of ephemeral buildings in London, the group secured their legacy with a six-month residency in a disused car showroom and parts centre on Bristol’s Cheltenham Road. Originally squatting the premises as a reaction to the wasteful neglect of such a prominent building, the project quickly gained the support of the local community. The street-facing ex-showroom became a glass-fronted, walk-past gallery featuring the cream of Bristol’s artistic endeavours and offering an outlet for those factions of the artistic underground who could not or would not find gallery space. Other internal spaces became rehearsal rooms and the setting for workshops, talks, film-nights and various cabaret performances from the Invisible Circus – the group’s performance wing. An epic finale show ‘The Road To Nowhere’ sealed the fame of the group, the building and the ethos of the project. And a newfound legitimacy beneath the moniker ‘Artspace / Lifespace’ facilitated the group’s progression and purpose beyond a single structure.
Doug Francis – Artspace / Lifespace founder commented at the time:
“We could all be a bit more aware of the spaces around us and the potential that might lie in them. Many buildings fall into disuse easily and people will all too readily complain when these places become an eyesore, or an attraction for crime or anti-social behaviour that can damage the surrounding area. We’ve shown that all it takes is determination and commitment to a project to completely turn somewhere around and make it an asset to the community.”
The car showroom was begrudgingly returned to its owners but the point had been made. Redundant space had been recycled into a thriving, multi-use arts hub. An eyesore had been turned into an asset. To say that it had all been done on a shoestring budget would be disingenuous; Artspace / Lifespace’s means consisted of volunteerism, donation and sheer, unwavering determination.
Unofficial accreditation from the council and mentorship from various parties allied with the energised team of volunteers and affirmation of potential. After several other offers made themselves available, the Artspace / Lifespace team were offered the chance to take on the Old Pro-Cathedral and Steiner school in Clifton. They took it.
Six months on and you can see the progression the group has made from their last venture. The Pro-Cathedral is nothing short of a triumph, housing a luxurious burlesque bar / lounge room, grand theatre and colossal Cathedral altar room.
The entire project encompasses many of the cornerstones of Bristol’s creative heritage and status quo. The theatre room – its parquet floor still garnished in the faded markings of a onetime sports hall – is, quite literally, one giant mural. Graffiti artist Xenz has spent many hours atop a scaffold tower adorning the walls with overwhelming vistas in implausible detail. It truly is a Sistine Chapel for the 21st century, its themes drawing from those of the project itself: beauty from decay; use from disuse.
Artistic Director Doug Francis took a moment out of his seemingly endless schedule to pass on a few words:
“We’ve received some financial help this time round. The developers Urban Creation have been hugely supportive and we have a great working relationship. We’ve also received support from the Arts and Business fund, the Scarman Trust and the Arts Council. But it’s still been really hard for us. We’ve really only managed it on the strength of the people who’ve helped out and given their time. That continues to be the case every time we put on an event… We are very excited about our winter season at the Pro-Cathedral. We feel that now is a crucial time to re-establish the creative profile of the city and lead by example, to some degree, in combating urban decay and environmental degradation nation-wide, with a fresh creative approach to an old social problem.”
The Pro-Cathedral is now a fully-fledged venue, having just been granted its full licence. Running under a temporary licence up until now, all of its shows and performances have sold out. With Bristol’s Old Vic theatre currently closed indefinitely, the Tobacco Factory theatre calling for financial support and Bristol Hippodrome cancelling shows due to “poor ticket sales” perhaps it is precisely Artspace / Lifespace’s idiosyncratic brand of participatory culture that is needed to motivate and inspire the masses.