WHILE many people view the cavernous, impersonal indoor shopping malls that are springing up in every conurbation across the country as offences against taste and decency, it seems these civic centres are here to stay. Planners keep planning them, consumers keep using them. However, if two enterprising young women from Highgate, north London, get their way, this needn't be a bad thing for the aesthetes among us. The pair want to transform these lands of piped music, chainstores, wailing kids and exasperated mums into vibrant, radical centres of local artistic experiment, and make them a focus for the community.
Jessica Gavron and Katie Machin have set up a company called Streets Ahead, which has the dual aim of stimulating urban regeneration and exposure for new talent. An agency for street entertainers, they will provide a link between bands, jugglers, performance artists and the like, and local authorities keen to bring some life into their civic areas. There is also the hope that the free entertainment will stimulate trade.
'I got the idea at a music festival in France,' Katie says. 'There was a brilliant acoustic band playing, and there was a great atmosphere. At first we thought how good it would be to bring the band back to England. But when we thought about the reality of it, it seemed a better idea to start with acts in north London.'
A kindly parent lent them a corner of the sitting-room and access to a fax, and, following ads in London listings magazines, a roster of acts started to build up. 'We want to provide a platform for young artists and performers who either want to practise a new technique, or want to make a few pounds, or can't get exhibition or performance space because they can't afford it or have no track record.'
The notion of co-ordinating street entertainment, though, seems almost a contradiction in terms. One of the pleasures of street theatre is surely its very spontaneity. One wonders if providing an agency for the street is a little like anarchists holding a policy reform meeting.
'All we're going to do is make sure that the art is not offensive and not too loud,' argues Katie, who believes that the profile of street performance needs to be raised. 'In England now, street art doesn't have much credibility. People look down on it, it's seen as not much better than begging. We want to give it credibility. Not by taming it - we want people to be more experimental than they would usually be - but purely by organising it, making sure it's good and giving it good press.'
The benefit to performers of an organised set-up is that they will have access to hitherto out of bounds areas, prime pitches where a spontaneous approach would only get them moved on by a security guard. Streets Ahead's first big project is a scheme developed in tandem with Julia Isherwood, who is Arts and Urban Regeneration Officer for Haringey Council, the only such post in the country. Her remit is to look at ways of bringing life to communal areas through the arts. 'Jessica and Katie approached me to see what I could do for them,' says Isherwood. 'They were so enthusiastic and motivated that I said I'd meet them for lunch and have a brainstorming session. I told them to work up their idea into a business plan that we would put forward to a local shopping mall.'
The result is a trial week of events, to be held in February at Wood Green's Shopping City (last week's IRA bomb- attack has not affected the project). Shopping City will pay overheads for the performers, and if the week is successful, it will lead on to a more sustained programme. The early signs are promising: at a half-hour test run last week, all-female acoustic band The Wise Wound gathered a crowd within minutes.
Not all the performers who turned up were overly enthusiastic about the project. 'I suppose it's all right,' said Dean, for whom dancing is 'an expression and an emotion'. 'But the chances of a promoter wandering past you in this place are about a million to one. Promoters have got better things to do.' But then Dean is more interested in the gradient of his career path than in urban regeneration. Other performers share the Streets Ahead ethic, believing that busking is a service to the community, as well as a good way to practise and experiment and get exposure between paid dates. 'We spent the summer busking at Camden Lock,' says Suzen from The Wise Wound. 'And that's really where we learnt to play.'
Promoting street theatre can't be a bad idea at a time when the recession has hit more conventional venues of artistic activity. Says Jessica: 'All the local boroughs are having to cut down arts expenditure. The theatre is very expensive and often very conventional. Fringey things are being cut back, because the money is going into established forms of art like the National Theatre. All the pubs are cutting back on their acts. There's no outlet for all the things that are happening.'
The fact that two highly educated young people - Jessica graduated two years ago from Cambridge, Katie is studying part- time for an MA - is symptomatic of the what-the-hell-we've-got- nothing-to-lose attitude that the recession is fostering. 'Lots of people our age are trying different things because even traditionally secure career paths don't guarantee a job,' says Katie. 'Jessica and I probably wouldn't be doing this 10 years ago. We'd have gone into something more conventional. Now we've got nothing to lose.'
While it would be rash to claim that the recession has been a good thing, anything that democratises the arts can't be all bad. 'We want to inform people about what's going on, show them experimental art that is often just as good as what you might pay to see,' Jessica declares, 'but at times when lots of people can see it, i e, not in the evenings when you can't get a baby-sitter, and to a public that wouldn't think of going out to the theatre, and a public that can't afford to go to concerts. We want to make it accessible to the whole community.' And any kind of art is surely preferable to endless tinny muzak renditions of 'Greensleeves' and 'Yesterday'.
Streets Ahead can be contacted on 081- 347 8834.
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