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Inspiring Conversations - What could be the future of Rabbits Road Institute Library?

We think a lot about the future of Rabbits Road Institute Library, how it can continue to grow and be a Library that is useful to and responds to others, to a community.

Over the last few months we have been having exciting and inspiring conversations with people who have really interesting and insightful projects and methodologies of practice that resonate with our thinking and Rabbits Road Institute Library: Rebecca Davies and Anna Francis (Portland Inn Project), Jeanne van Heeswijk, Jo Marsh (Ty Pawb), Adele Patrick (Glasgow Women’s Library) and Aqui Thami (Sister Library).

Themes that came out of these conversations and that we developed questions around were: commitment, collaboration, care, commons, collecting, change, decentralising power, joy, localness, slowness, and self-education. We have also been thinking about decentralisation in relation to the organisation and usership of the Library, and how to make this work. We became interested in this idea of decentralisation through our research into feminist organising and interdependent economies which came from another project, True Currency: About Feminist Economics. For us, it is also useful and important to think about how this way of working can manifest within an art practice.

We are incredibly grateful to everyone who took the time to have these conversations with us, as they have helped us think through the next steps and our approach to the future of the Library. Below is some information and links about each person, and quotes from our conversation with them.

The amazing drawings are by Markus Vater and were made during a live drawing performance he did in response to the talks, interviews and screenings we organised to launch the Library in Old Manor Park Library in Newham in 2016. For us they speak to the possibilities of libraries and their futures, and we're really excited to show some of them here!

Amy & Ruth

Rebecca Davies and Anna Francis

Portland Inn Project, Stoke on Trent

Rebecca Davies and Anna Francis are artists who collaborate on The Portland Inn Project. The project is based in the Hanley neighbourhood in Stoke-on-Trent, where derelict properties were sold for £1 with the view of changing the fortunes of the area, and the council offered a disused pub to the community, if the they could prove its sustainability as a community centre. As a CIC (community interest company), The Portland Inn Project aims to create economic, social and cultural change by involving local people in the development of a community space, cultural hub and social enterprise. It celebrates its Stoke heritage while creating a space that encourages people-led improvement and change to the area, through arts and cultural activity, aims to create a counter narrative for the neighbourhood. Key themes include self-representation (using methods such as film, animation, design and printing) and developing skills in the community (such as social organising, cooking and gardening).

On Commitment:

“As artists largely running the project, when we’re deep in it it’s important for us to have times when we can step away and step back from it. It was 2017 when a community member [first] ran an event. We’d been working there quite a long time and it felt so important when that happened. Always it’s been about how do we make sure this is for everyone - you know, it’s not just up to us. That although we’re leading on it now, we won’t lead on it forever and there will be a time and a space when this gets handed over fully to the community. But it’s quite tricky because there’s quite a lot that we're now responsible for. So initially we were working on a community project, to raise energy in the community - that was the initial premise. Then this snowballed into getting and re-designing a building, and then becoming an organisation, because we had to set up as a CIC. So now there’s all these different things. It gets bigger and bigger.”

On Decision-making:

“It’s really important to talk about the fact that it isn’t just us and our whims - we have a community decision-making panel now, which is really key. We always had community meetings but now we have a formal community decision making panel which meets every month or so, and we discuss what funding we’re going for, what the money is being spent on, what projects we going to work on, what our priorities are. There isn’t a recruitment process, anyone who wants to be on the panel is welcome, so it changes all the time. There’s always about 8 community members who come to every meeting, and then different ones fluctuate. It isn’t an exclusive club, it’s much more flexible than that. People come and go, kids can join in. We always try to make sure there is a nice dinner and that it’s not dry and boring.”

On Community:

“It’s called the Portland Inn Project and it’s been about getting this building to happen but it’s become much more than that. It’s actually about how do you create a space for a community to come together against all odds, where people can actually make positive change for ourselves and for our neighbourhood. People who perhaps had given up really on this notion of community – how do you bring those people back on board? To start caring again about their place and believing that they can make their place better for themselves.”

Jeanne van Heeswijk, Artist

Jeanne van Heeswijk is an artist who facilitates the creation of dynamic and diversified public spaces in order to “radicalize the local”. Her long-scale community-embedded projects question art’s autonomy by combining performative actions, discussions, and other forms of organizing and pedagogy in order to assist communities to take control of their own futures. For 2up2down in Liverpool, she listened to the people of Anfield and Everton during the 'Housing Market Renewal' Scheme about their hopes for the future of the area, discussing how they could work towards taking matters in community hands. She negotiated with the Mitchell family to use their bakery building and out of this Homebaked community bakery and a CLT (community land trust) was born. For Philadelphia Assembled, van Heeswijk spoke to over 350 people and collected their ideas about what makes Philadelphia the city it is, before co-creating an expansive project that combines art, performance, and civic engagement.

On Time:

“Duration is an important element, but I don’t see it as the amount of time you can stick it out. I don’t see it as a homogenous continuum. When I think about duration, I think about something called repetitive insertion. [..] One of the things with time, even if it’s time spent together, is that we still often think of an idea of progressive time, that time moves somewhere. So to also understand that there is unproductive time. […] That’s what I mean with repetitive insertions, that there is time that is productively worked, but there is also time for non-movement. And to not see that as not moving. But as needed space for things to evolve.”

On Local-ness

“I think slightly different about the local than a lot of people think. For me the local is not about a postcode. It’s not about being a resident or not. I think local is much more a complexity. I think for me, the local is an emotional condition that holds global conflict with local specificities.”

Jo Marsh

Ty Pawb, Wrexham, Wales

Tŷ Pawb, Welsh for Everybody's House, is a cultural community resource, bringing together arts and markets within the same footprint. This coexistence celebrates the significance of markets within Wrexham’s cultural heritage and identity. Ty Pawb offers a space for dialogue around subjects including social and civic issues, the environment, health, cultural identity, sustainability and education. It presents a contemporary programme of welcoming and inclusive exhibitions, socially engaged projects and live performance. The programme emphasises skills and craft, working with emerging and established artists from all backgrounds. Jo Marsh has been director of Ty Pawb since 2017.

On Decentralisation:

“The useful art space will be for developing projects and programming things together. Rather than the gallery having to always be the end point, it can also be the catalyst place. Where we initiate things and ‘take them to market’. We want to work with specific groups in that space, and part of the point, the essence of that work is about responding to urgencies together and designing programme together. But it’s very new for us, so it’s only when we are doing these projects together, and putting them in the building in different ways, that I think it will start to make sense, and this will take time. For example, I know that the Portuguese group want to make products for sale, and the space can be used to make things that go in the market, but it won’t be quick and you can’t contrive that also. Rather than being led by a curatorial vision and everything else follows from that, it’s actually being led by relationships and that sense of being plugged into locally. That’s really about letting go of autonomy.”

Adele Patrick

Glasgow Women’s Library

Glasgow Women’s Library is the only Accredited Museum in the UK dedicated to women’s lives, histories and achievements, with a lending libraryarchive collections and innovative programmes of public. The Women’s Library was established in 1991 in shop front in Garnethill, and is now housed in a refurbished historic library in Bridgeton. Aiming to empower women whatever their background, the library offers a range of events and learning opportunities from one-to-one literacy tutoring and creative workshops to film screenings and guided walks exploring the hidden histories of women in Glasgow. Involved in the Library from its inception, Adele Patrick is now is co-Director with Sue John, and also Director of Creative Development, Delivery and Engagement.

On Reading & Accessibility:

“Right at the outset there were very many women who didn’t have a lot of cultural capital, weren’t readers, weren’t university educated or anything like that. And we’ve continued.. Our library has women coming who are learning English as a second or third language, who are not confident readers at all, coming in 4 days a week. The journey to be reading the stuff in the library is one I’m really excited that people go on. Probably for 15 years or longer we’ve had ESOL and adult literacy and numeracy workers embedded in the library. For me, as somebody.. we’re passionate aren’t we, about reading? and about texts, and what they do to your head, and how the world opens up through literacy and reading.

[..] Our thinking is, What will you do with this reading? One person I know used it to read a lesbian horror novel and was coming out in the process, as a young woman who was criminalised through the process of homophobic bullying. For me it’s in instrument for staking your place and understanding your environment, and being connected, and what we talk about when we talk about citizenship.

On Art:

“On occasions I have actually thought about our Women’s library as a longitudinally-running artwork. I have thought that’s what we’ve done. That’s what it is. With my training as an artist, and the other director, we are both GSA trained artists.”

On White Supremacy:

[Shannon Mattern’s book Fugitive Libraries] was looking at intersections of racist and white supremacist thinking in libraries. Because there’s a set of thinking that libraries are the ultimate democratic civic space. That really opened my eyes to how appalling racist libraries have been in the past. And the work to be done in terms of the sector. Thinking about the idea of local libraries, and how we think about them – we think about them under threat. This is the time to revolutionise them. If we are going to save them, we don’t want to save them to be the same as they have been.”

Aqui Thami

Sister Library

Aqui Thami is a Mumbai-based artist, activist and academic. Her multidisciplinary practice is inspired by the culture of DIY, which has brought her to collaborate with young girls, women and children. She is a member of Dharavi Art Room and Bombay Underground, and founded Sister Library initially with her personal collection of books authored by women. Sister Library is now permanent space in the Bandra neighbourhood of Mumbai housing 600 works of literature by women including zines, graphic novels, fiction, nonfiction and poetry. The library acts both as a political and activist space with the intention of becoming a space for women to share where they can break the ‘boundaries of caste and class’. The library hosts talks, meals, a community risograph press, and Sister Radio.

On Starting a Collection:

“I decided to read women exclusively. If I want to read about something I will find the books and articles written by women. [..] It was lifechanging for me, because it helped me shift perspectives on so many things. I would just get so excited about certain books, and give them to my friends. And slowly my house because like a borrowing library. I thought maybe I could find a space where everyone could borrow these books, not just my friends. [..] Most of the books are books that have nurtured me and helped me grow. [..] I wanted a space that people could step in and just be surrounded by works of women.”

On Need:

“So many people would visit the library. Every time we travelled to a city people were really enthusiastic about the Sister Library coming to their city. Because we do not have anything like that [..] After having travelled to these five cities, I got a lot of emails from people asking ‘is there a way I can come and finish this book? I’d like to bring my mother..’ these emails became more and more frequent. And having been in London and coming to the Feminist Library I just wanted a space like that in India, where women could bring their kids, or their mother.”

On Class & Privilege

“People who were coming to the library were mostly people who were working in other people’s homes. They would come between shifts, look at books, use the bathroom, have a snack. That allowed them to have a pause from being a servant. They could be human beings. It also allowed the rich, upper and middle class people to have a space to communicate with someone very different from them. […] The space has become one where people find themselves very emotionally attached and entangled with. Especially for women who do not have spaces like this to go to. I feel a responsibility to have a space like this going on. In the future, I would like women with economic power and access to take responsibility. Everyone wants to call themselves a feminist, but not everyone wants to organize and do the dirty work!”

On Collaboration:

“Everyone is involved. It’s run by everyone, It’s everybody’s space.


Angels, drawing by Markus Vater, 2016

Horizon, drawing by Markus Vater, 2016

At the end of the world, drawing by Markus Vater, 2016

If you want to understand, drawing by Markus Vater, 2016