MPA’s Steph Hawke is working with a project initiated by Burnley Borough Council, called Ground UP . It aims to explore sense of place in South West Burnley. Steph is part of a team of three Creative Collaborators and her role is to act as an ethnographer, studying people and place. Here’s one of her recent blog posts:
First rule: gatekeepers
Ground UP is about exploring sense of place and asking questions such as ‘What makes South West Burnley different?’ and ‘What is special about South West Burnley?’ Studying people and place in South West Burnley however has its own particular tensions, especially when discussion moves on to consider change. Unfortunately for some people, asking them what makes South West Burnley different from other places elicits negative perceptions about the area or rather what it is felt to have become.
On Friday afternoon I set out from Coal Clough Library, camera in hand, with the intention of striking up a few conversations, capturing some images and maybe, if I was lucky, recording an interview or two. Susan at the Library was incredibly supportive and offered me a little space where I could invite people to join me for a chat.
Now, using a digital SLR camera on a residential high street is not the most subtle approach an ethnographer might employ, but based on experiences I’d had late last summer, I naively imagined that the camera might draw a bit of interest. When I was last out and about with a camera, people were sitting on the low walls outside their houses, chatting in groups: quick to stop me and ask, ‘are you from the council?’ or ‘are you a student?’ but crucially giving me the seed from which a conversation could grow.
An icy wind-blown day in March was sadly a less hospitable environment for idle, playful chats. One resident, we’ll call her June, was keen to tell me about the changes she had seen over her 30 years in the same house, and the transformation of the street as her old neighbours moved away to be replaced by a proliferation of (largely absent) private landlords. It felt to me almost as if she was struggling to take a position in relation to the shifting social dynamic, where at once she seemed to condemn the ways of her new neighbours, she quickly rounded to boast about how the younger men looked after her ‘Are you OK, we’re going into town, do you need any shopping?’
June clutched her dressing gown around her and sucked on a cigarette as she stood in the front doorway of her house. ‘Would it be OK if I came in and recorded a chat?’ I asked, but no, our conversation occupied an odd place between June’s garrulous geniality and her almost suspicious restraint. I strained to catch what she had to say, leaning over the wall, the wind causing tear drops to stream from my face. On three occasions as we chatted, she shouted greetings to passers-by, ‘Do you know a lot of people round here?’ I asked. ‘Oh yeah, I know everyone.’
Where to next? I need to be introduced by a person of trust. First rule of ethnography: gatekeepers.
Steph is working as part of a team of three Creative Collaborators. They are working with local people to commission artist’s residencies in the area. Visit the Ground UP blog to read more.