Sheffield – first impressions

I’ve just got back from a few days of induction to the Happenstance project in Sheffield,where I met lots of new people and experienced some of the achievements and challenges of the Site Gallery and the city as a whole.

The Site Gallery is a contemporary art space on an extraordinary street packed with maker hubs, artists’ studios, arts centres and university buildings. I can’t stress the intensity of creativity in the area.

My first impression, at least, is of an under-funded area that wants, more than anything, to make. The urge to create is in the air, it’s normal and doesn’t need to be justified – so it’s not spiked with competitiveness, it’s laid-back and friendly. It struck me that people have huge amounts of time for each other. They walk down the street and they talk to one another face-to-face (I shouldn’t be surprised, but it’s an alien concept to many London-workers)… and as a result there is a massive amount going on. In fact, unlike London, there are things on here that I’d go out of my way to do or see, every single night. It’s hard to sound genuine saying this, but I really think that something wonderful his arising out of this culture of default friendliness.

It helps that the Site Gallery’s new management, Laura and Judith, and the whole team, have put a massive amount of time and energy into connecting with the community. I’m glad they’re there – they’d be wasted in London. My co-happenstancer James Jefferies is exceptional, and while we don’t know quite what we’re going to build yet, we have found several things at the gallery we’d like to put our skills behind. James is a great developer and I sort of shepherd and articulate technological mash-ups. It’s obvious that we’re going to have a lot of fun working together, whatever happens.

I knew I’d like Sheffield and the Site Gallery, but I was totally unprepared for how much. I grew up all over the UK, but mainly Midlands and North – from 1994 to 2005 I was mainly based on the Isle of Man and in Yorkshire. But for the last few years I’ve worked in London, and for all the interesting people and stimulating ideas I’ve come across, I’ve never stopped missing the north.

I missed it so much, for so long, that the missing became a force of its own and I started to forget just what it actually was I missed. Everyone in London is so unwaveringly positive about life down here (and skeptical about life beyond the Watford gap) that I did sometimes doubt myself. I wondered whether I was just being stubborn or contrary, or romanticising northern life. And I wondered if it would even suit me up there these days – if it’s possible to be away too long.

Of course, I needn’t have worried. A few days in Sheffield for the Happenstance induction, and I’ve started to remember all those things I always enjoyed, and discovered a load of new things to love, too. I have had a really wonderful week. It’s been a long time since a place has made me feel so excited and so welcome.

There is something about the mentality of the place that rings true with me. I’m not a poet, I’m quite literal and need to understand the system – and unlike London, here is a place that just makes sense. Sheffield has an incredible tradition of making and doing, and an atmosphere of honesty that cuts through language. As soon as I arrived it was explained to me that people here traditionally demonstrate things to each other rather than investing in the slippery techniques of persuasion. Making is the way things are explained and understood, and that’s exactly why so many excellent things get done here. “Just make it. Show me.” I absolutely love it – they are so right. And that’s it! That’s what I missed, without realising I missed it. It just took someone to show me.

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  1. Pingback: First Impressions – Leila Johnston - Happenstance

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