Shani Ali, Paul Bradley & Ingrid Skeels Room 13 Hareclive studio collective
‘Let’s change things’ was the first banner that Room 13 Hareclive children ever made, carried purposefully out of school in a procession through the local streets. On a later occasion, the banner was marched into City Hall for a Bristol City Council event. And later still, it hung in the Tate Exchange studio at Tate Modern, alongside other Room 13 Hareclive artworks and activist films on show1. Each time children wanted something different: safer streets with reduced traffic; free bus travel; and their voices to be heard and acted on. On each occasion, they felt listened to, and people started to respond. It seems that through creating work, relationships and situations with children’s creativity and voice at their heart, small quiet shifts start to happen.
How did we get to ‘Let’s Change Things’? We’d like to tell you about Room 13 Hareclive’s approach and the creative environmental project that shifted our activism onto a different level. Most importantly, we want to tell you more about the simple, transplantable seeds at the heart of all our work: time and space for children’s imagination, and listening to what they think and feel.
Room 13 Hareclive
Room 13 Hareclive2 is an independent artists’ studio based in the grounds of Hareclive E-Act primary school in Hartcliffe, south Bristol: a space where children can come at breaks and lunchtimes to follow their own interests and ideas, at their own pace, supported by an adult artist educator. A team of children helps to run the space, and older Room 13ers come back for some projects.
Hareclive is one of the most disadvantaged communities in England. And yet, Hareclive children – as everywhere – have innate talent, creativity and gifts to grow into and to offer. We have been working with ‘generations’ of Hareclive children since 2003 in Room 13’s collaborative, democratic way. The result is a culture where children are both free and supported to think, speak, act and create according to individual and collective inspirations, explorations and concerns – with results that still amaze us, every day of the year.
At the heart of all this is children’s agency, starting with whatever a child wants to look at, draw, make, work on or talk about. It expands to children helping to run the space itself: ordering materials, helping to fundraise, writing emails, running our small shop at break times. And expands again into studio-wide projects where we all collaborate. How should we tackle this challenge? How can we make it happen together? What are the children’s thoughts and ideas? Who will do what? After that, children’s voice is there in a different way, out in the world, through work in exhibitions, writing, presentations or films. These ingredients have always been present in Room 13, but one project in particular led us to a new kind of creative activism with children.
The Dundry Slopes Commission: adventures of curiosity and wonder
In 2015, Room 13 Hareclive won the Bristol Green Capital Neighbourhood Arts Commission for our area. The brief: to engage local and Bristol residents in the very under-used green space at the edges of south Bristol – Dundry Slopes. There were already community groups trying to do this through organised nature walks and conservation. Instead, inspired by the work of local and international artist Richard Long3, our Patron, we proposed a new venture of discovery on the Slopes; one where the interests, questions, wonder, curiosity, imagination and pioneering spirit of local children would lead the way.
That summer, we set out together to explore the landscape in small groups and later in classes. Not through organised talks or work sheets, but through walking, clambering, climbing, talking to local residents and groups, looking at books and listening to stories and memories. In essence, through exploring, which then ignited a strong spark of interest, imagination and motivation to learn.
What we discovered was a place of secret natural beauty, amazing views, wildlife and history; a peaceful, magical place, full of local stories, meaning and memory, where children used to play and couples court. And yet, a place where hardly anything in the landscape was named and few children or adults now went.
In response, we created a new map of Dundry Slopes4. All we discovered went into it. We named features and created trails of Curiosity and Wonder for others to explore, even taking other classes and groups of adults up there.
The children’s work created new meaning and ‘ways in’ to the Slopes for them and for local people, as this short film5 shows.
At the same time – in this age where children are less and less free to play out and explore wild green spaces, and increasingly pulled towards indoor, screen related pastimes –we also discovered important things about ourselves.
“I didn’t think I could do this kind of thing but I can.” – Lewis, 12
“I went up on the Slopes in my converse tracksuit and got mud all over me. I was cross then I realized the mud will wash out but the fun memories will stay.” – Rhiannon,13
“…out of school I am a ‘stay in your bedroom’ kind of person. But through exploring the Dundry Slopes for this project I have discovered I like to take challenges and risks outside. I am now going to go for the Duke of Edinburgh Awards.” – Lauren, 15
In November 2015 we exhibited our work at the Arnolfini Light Studio6. But the Dundry Slopes work had also lit another spark: the joy of being free to explore outside and have our say. This eventually led to our collaborative work with Playing Out CIC on Safer Streets (2016) and the creation of our short film ‘The Sad Reality’7. This has been shown at many public events and it’s where our ‘Let’s Change Things’ work really began.
Then came work with the University of Bristol, exploring the disconnection between Hartcliffe and the city centre and the barriers to getting there by bus (2018). We made our short film ‘Now’s The Time’8, calling for free bus travel for children. This has also been screened at many events, generated local press coverage and fed into a House of Commons Select Committee. Children’s creativity and voice… small quiet shifts beginning to happen.
Room 13 2020
Now in the dark days of November, following five months where most children had no school at all and all the many other challenges in their lives, we are back in the studio. So much of what used to freely happen in Room 13 is now not possible. Care around bubbles, equipment and the many necessary restrictions are paramount. But, those important seeds we spoke of – children’s imagination and voice – can still be there. In fact, no matter how hard things are or what restrictions anyone has, these seeds can be there, where adults allow it. Right now we are talking about favourite animals, favourite environments. We are adding these to a collaborative collage started last year called ‘You have the right to Dream’. Together we are building up a rich, diverse and beautiful world of possibilities on the canvas, until we can do more. In Room 13 we know that where these seeds exist, children can be positive and creative, and so hope exists, and the possibility of change.
1. Tate Modern Workshop ‘Children’s Creativity: Join the Resistance with Room 13 Hareclive’ tinyurl.com/y3clwe3v
2. Room 13 Hareclive room13hareclive.org.uk
3. Richard Long, artist richardlong.org
4. A Guide to Discovering Paths of Adventure, Curiosity and Wonder on Dundry Slopes tinyurl.com/6xfc4smc
5. Video: ‘Adventures of Curiosity & Wonder: The Dundry Slopes’ youtu.be/fX7VwZfRmP4
6. Arnolfini Gallery exhibition ‘Room 13 Hareclive Presents… Adventures of Curiosity and Wonder on Dundry Slopes’ tinyurl.com/z7epusov
7. Video: ‘Room 13 Hareclive presents… The Sad Reality’ vimeo.com/208477850
8. Video: ‘Room 13 Hareclive presents… Now’s the Time’ vimeo.com/325299656
Shani Ali, Paul Bradley and Ingrid Skeels are the adult members of the Room 13 Hareclive studio collective on the Hartcliffe estate, south Bristol.
More information: room13hareclive.org.uk
This article was first published in 2021 in Vol 126 of the NAEE journal which is available free to members. This edition was an arts-themed special, written with Cambridge Curiosity and Imagination.