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Over the last 18 months Tangwen Roberts has been working with the Confluence partnership to run The Lab: a programme for arts and regeneration in Haverfordwest, overseen by Arts Council Wales as one of seven Ideas:People:Places projects across Wales. Tangwen reports for CCQ:

Like many market towns in the last decade, Haverfordwest has slumped: economically, creatively and psychologically. And it shows. Returning to my hometown after five years of coming and going as a student, I have seen the slow decline in the appearance of the town, and residents’ attitudes towards their local environment. Telling people that I live and work in the county town I became used to the inevitable responses: ‘Oh yeah, it’s not what it was’, ‘It’s gone a bit downhill, hasn’t it?’. And even, from an incredulous local authority employee, ‘Why did you come back here?!’ Local social media communities proclaim the ruination of a once proud and thriving market town, in a mist of nostalgic pessimism, chastising local authorities for historic poor decisions. Sometimes I have found myself almost apologising in my intonation and facial expression; other times, deliberately compensating for the inevitable response, chirping that I live in ‘Harfat’, local and proud. But, more recently responses have included, ‘Ah, that’s the place with the lantern parade - that was great! I discovered a part of town I never even knew about!’ So what’s changed?

Described as, ‘the effect of a geographical location on the emotions and behaviour of individuals,’ psychogeography maps our emotional responses, and relationship, to our surrounding environment: how the children, young people and adults who live, work and play in the town feel about where they come from (and where they’re going). After nearly three years of participative arts events, seminars, exhibitions and artistic commissions, there seems to be the beginnings of a shift in the collective psychogeographies of Haverfordwest.

When I first became involved in The Lab, working for Confluence partners spacetocreate, the project (which was already six months in) was looking to engage local people beyond an already enthusiastic community of established artists and creatives living in Pembrokeshire. Then, in October 2015 came the River of Lights, a series of free, public lantern-making workshops over the half-term culminating in an evening procession of over 1000 people. As families and friends wound their way through streets and along the Cleddau, lanterns bobbing, River of Lights brought life, light and music to the town centre, at a time in the evening when it had long been emptied of shoppers.

Over the last 18 months, since the first River of Lights, a regular programme of public events and commissions have celebrated Haverfordwest’s creativity, showcasing the local talents, not only of established artists, but aspiring artists and creatives. In October 2016 PLATFORM hosted award winning local artists in some of the disused public spaces that punctuate the town centre. The Old Prison echoed with films and soundtracks by local filmmakers and composers. One recently vacated retail unit on the riverside shopping development played out the soundtracks of the town’s people, chosen by passers by. And in another, children gathered to share the delicate clay vessels they had created with a local ceramicist. PLATFORM not only highlighted the extraordinary talents of local artists and brought them to residents’ doorsteps, it also demonstrated the potential for empty, and disused spaces to be temporarily occupied and used for the benefit of the community. Less than a year after PLATFORM, and a public talk hosted at the Lab on different uses and potential community ownership models for these Stalled Spaces, an action group, has been established to help raise funds to buy the Old Post Office as a community venture.

The repurposing of urban spaces was also seen in Breaking Out of the Gallery, a project seed-funded by the programme, as part of the Ideas Lab, which called for public contributions for ideas to regenerate Haverfordwest. In its first year in 2016, Breaking Out invited local artists, students, professionals and amateurs to create a piece of work reflecting their own interpretation of the town. Breaking out of the (often) less accessible art galleries, over the Summer of 2016, 32 works were mounted on external walls around the town centre, on display for shoppers and visitors, before being sold in a public auction.

All these events have been located in an area of the town defined by shops and retail units, over-looked by the Castle, and what would commonly be defined as "the town centre”.

But locating Haverfordwest’s centre has proved problematic in recent years. There is no sense of a space in which Haverfordwest’s people gather together, an agora that represents the spiritual, communal, political centre of the town. With this in mind, in January 2017 artist Janetka Platun set about Searching for the Centre with the help of local shoppers and residents, along with four Llangwm fisherwomen (who would historically travel into the town centre to sell the day’s catch). Entering the town from four cardinal points, the fisherwomen asked passers-by for directions to the centre, in the hope they would all meet in the same place. Whilst a consensus proved illusive, all four eventually met at the grey, concrete space outside Poundland and Subway: Castle Square. Though many of the people who directed them there felt that the square had long ceased to be the social space it once was.

Events such as River of Lights, PLATFORM and Breaking Out of the Gallery prove that Haverfordwest has a lot to offer, creatively and socially. This year will see the second reincarnation of the Haverfordwest Festival Week, run by the Town Council, and which last year saw a flurry of activity along (and on) the river. But as the Lab project draws to a close this October, what does the future of Haverfordwest look like? Permanent change takes time, and a long-term investment.

Through a series of continued creative interventions over the years, we (the people of Haverfordwest) could reimagine the town and our relationship with it, as a vibrant and distinctive market town, reconnected with its river in full flow, and charged by our own creativity. Haverfordwest could yet become a model for arts led regeneration in small towns in Wales.

Breaking out of the Gallery 2017 is currently running until the middle of September, and works will be auctioned on 15 September. For more information about the work and artists involved you can visit the facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/breakingoutofthegallery/.

Tangwen Roberts

@TangwenHannah

 

Images: River of Lights, Jenny Blackmore; Black Diamond, Tangwen Roberts; Drovers, Karen Ingham; Big Map, Chris Evans