The Maker Movement of Nottingham?

Exhibition Review, Hyson Green Workshops: Citizen Design Action 

New Art Exchange, Nottingham (CLOSED 17th March)

‘A means of ‘provid[ing] local employment opportunities missing at present; an opportunity for displaced craftsmen and first time starters looking for cheap units to work from; and a potential training scheme to learn and develop skills and experience’

Bahbak Hashemi-Nezhad’s exhibition about – and situated next to – the Hyson Green Estate is redolent of late 70s activism, and the Thatcherism just in sight. A BBC regional news reports crisply from the scene,  whilst a rough cut VHS of citizen journalism pumps out strains of reggae alongside talking heads teetering on shower pads, all characterised by an acid house colour palette.

One end of the gallery is dominated by a large still from the eventual demolition of the estate, where a mural (from one of the artists studios it housed) of Nottingham’s very own spaceman stands amidst the rubble. Blame it on normcore, the recent trend for jogging bottoms, or no name goods if you like, but these images make me increasingly nostalgic for a past that isn’t mine.

The narrative of the Hyson Green Workshops, established in the late 70s and demolished in the mid 80s, is as much about citizen action and tenant organisation than it is about localised manufacturing, skills supply and that enduring term, ‘resilience’. Whilst much has been written recently about the pitfalls of collaboration (often wholly reliant on the gushing forth of unpaid emotional labour in the face of squeezed financial resources); the tenants of Hyson Green organized, engaged and challenged local opposition in a way that might be considered as a golden standard for community projects today. At a time when an agenda (or at least visibility, given the importance of photo shoots with the area’s noted leaders) of ‘maker culture’ actively risks alientating grassroots activity, local authorities in particular would do well to study the rise and fall of the Nottingham estate’s workshops.

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In 1977, the Hyson Green Development Tenants Association formed to focus on the social and economic problems of the estate. A newsletter from 1980 indicated that the group was formed in response to a lack of meaningful engagement with Nottingham City Council, stating

‘We can’t expect local authorities and outside agencies to have the answers as is often thought, because those answers aren’t always relevant because they don’t live in areas like Hyson Green…’ (Koncrete Elephant 1980)

Historic GV of Hyson Green, Nottingham.

Historic GV of Hyson Green, Nottingham.

In the basement of the estate buildings lay 500 garage units falling into disrepair – due to failure in design (cracks in the concrete and asbestos problems in addition to the limited financial means of tenants unable to afford the cars to fill them). The exhibition notes indicate that a Lecturer in Planning from Trent Polytechnic suggested that the estate copy a model of repurposing these spaces, as he had seen in Clerkenwell. A two- year campaign to reclaim these garages as spaces to better serve the community followed, with acute opposition from the City Council, who proposed that the units be knocked through and transformed into an indoor bowling green. The HGDTA instead proposed and developed plans for a series of

‘small units, at cheap rents for crafts people; areas for co-operatives where local people can organise and run their own programmes; and an area for the possible use of the Social Services where handicapped people could be employed’ (That Paper)

Facing continuing active opposition from the City Council, the group raised an impressive and sustained campaign raised over £300,000 from different EU development mechanisms, to be later supplemented by rental income from the units. Astute partnerships were formed with Nottingham Trent Polytechnic, leading to knowledge transfer and skills sharing. The school became actively involved in producing plans for the project in an effort to consider how to best adapt the garages to suit the needs of the scheme. In return, the space supported students from the Trent Polytechnic Small Business Studies Unit, and formed a traineeship program for new small-starter enterprises. Eventually, 28 workshops were created, with a training centre built and run in conjunction with the Manpower Services Commission. Later consensus between HGDTA and the City Council provoked the formation of a jointly owned Limited Liability Company to protect the workshops, with the tenants of Hyson Green owning most of the shares.

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The narrative of the project, and personal experience of those involved, raises interesting questions for current debates around the future  – and even purpose – of estates like these. Hyson Green was demolished in the late 1980s; despite well run campaigns by the proceeding tenants’ group, the Hyson Green Tenants Action Group, evidenced in part by the variety of estate newsletters on display in the gallery. The gallery promotional material claims that this group was an integral part of imagining future homes for its displaced tenants – although because it is not the focus of this exhibition, we cannot be so sure.

I recently spoke at the fourth and final symposium of the RCA / EPSRC-funded  Future Makespaces: Redistributed Manufacturing project. This session focused on policy, including the immediate gripes with the regeneration agenda of local authorities, increasingly under pressure to prove their worth through enabling growth as well as supplying services. Several people who ran makespaces spoke of their frustration of the compliance in feeding in to a box-ticking exercise lead by the local authority. Thomas Diez of Fab Lab Barcelona eloquently highlighted the dangers of the hack or makespace being a mere ‘container without content’; free to take on whatever agenda its owners (or funders) choose.

I felt that a lot of these concerns missed the bigger picture. It is of course valuable to experiment and tinker with objects and remove them from their black box in peace from the Mayor who wants a photo op. However, policy is so much more fundamental than that; operating in regional, national, trans and international networks. Behind our smooth surfaces and intuitive UX lie politically fraught supply chains and logistics of mind boggling complexity – but of course we would prefer not to know.

As Indy Johar pointed out in his symposium talk, the policies and politics we need to reform are often the most opaque; and those which protect a whole suite of industries – actuaries, accountants, architects, surveyors – trusted, expert middlemen in standards established almost 80 years ago. Unfashionably, it is the dark matter of manufacturing that will make the most impact in terms of how we rethink design, manufacture and consumption of goods and services. More on his thoughts about the complexities of the so-called maker movement here

It is too easy, and strictly inaccurate, to portray the Hyson Green workshops as proto-makespaces. The units there followed the same patterns as most craft and mechanical workshops have done for centuries. What is notable however is the very site of the workshops; and how it was thought of as ‘a good thing’ to engage with machinists and craftsmen in the local area; providing learning opportunities for wider learning, and establishing good relationships with educational establishments in the proximity. Despite the various economic development initiatives from Nottingham City Council at the time, this plan did not come from local government but was actively shaped by its opposition to it.
In the context of the community in which it operated, however, the Hyson Green estate was built at a time when government invested in social housing of all shapes and sizes, patronizing a wide variety of architectural styles and blueprints. With a determined campaign to discredit these very same estates today, this exhibition is timely. The antidote is the same – organize, tirelessly. Support community champions, and proactively identify partners, local or otherwise, who share  your vision for how the world (even our square mile of it) ought to be.

Both Naomi Turner and Bahbak Hashemi are currently supported by Near Now, based at Broadway Cinema, Nottingham.