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Nelson Reimagined

What Sustainable Futures might emerge from our Postindustrial Towns?

Andy Abbott

My involvement with This Is Nelson goes back to when I was Environment Programme Co-ordinator for In-Situ between 2018 and 2019. I’d just finished piloting a Centre for Socially Applied Arts at University of Bradford and was keen to connect with an artist-led organisation who were applying socially-engaged and embedded approaches to art in a postindustrial town ‘over the border’.

Image: Andy Abbott / The bRradford Thing

"what new realities and futures might emerge from the cracks and gaps of these often overlooked and underappreciated places?"

Despite their differing size, as former mill-towns Bradford and Nelson share a lot of characteristics and history. I’ve long-been fascinated with the potential for exchange between textiles towns across the UK, Europe and beyond. What knowledge and experiences can be shared between places whose identity was once rooted in a specific form of industry and, by extension, work? How might dialogue between these towns help address and overcome the challenges that accompany the complex processes of deindustrialisation and regeneration? And, most importantly, what new realities and futures might emerge from the cracks and gaps of these often overlooked and underappreciated places?

Image: Diane Muldowney

Sam Jones, This is Nelson Community Assembly

Image: Diane Muldowney

Kristina Borg, Foraging Walk

Through my time working, living and researching in postindustrial towns I’ve come across a plethora of tools and tactics for resilience. I found that these places that have experienced dynamic shifts in the built and natural environment, work, economics, and social make-up have also been the birthplace of innovative ways to counteract uneven development: worker’s and social movements, community cafes, intercultural festivals, self-organised and DIY cultural spaces, alternative economic models and local currencies to name a few.

"to collectively imagine a future that is both authentically of this place and internationally connected"

It make sense to me then that we should look to our ‘left behind’ towns for ways out of the seemingly unending environmental, economic and social crises we find ourselves in. In a moment when it is increasingly clear that ‘business as usual’ is not working for the planet or 99% of its inhabitants - what other ways of being together, supporting one-another, and making use of resources do we have? Where are these alternative models already being tried and tested and what potential is there to build upon the learning from these experiments in doing differently?

Image: Diane Muldowney

Dana Olărescu, Experimental Food Festival în Nelson

These questions underpin the Nelson Reimagined strand of the £25million town deal programme. Through ongoing artistic action research we hope to uncover, identify, connect with, learn from and develop the tools to build a bright, just and sustainable future for Nelson that has a life beyond the timeframe of the funding. This involves not only looking closely at what exists today, but also what has come before, as a means by which to collectively imagine a future that is both authentically of this place and internationally connected. To enable us to think global and act local, and reposition places like Nelson as towns and cities of the postcapitalist future.

Image: Diane Muldowney

Andy Abbott , The Future of Work at 3B Systems in Nelson

Nelson is a town with a legacy of transformation and reinvention now with an opportunity to make a lasting change and forge a new path. What does this path build on? Who will walk it? Where might it lead? How will it be maintained? The vision for the Nelson Town Deal refers to sustainable (economic) growth and community involvement and within this strand we aim to dig deeper into these terms and themes by exploring the links between growth and development, alternative and community economies, and the social and environmental ecology of the town.

"What does this path build on? Who will walk it? Where might it lead? How will it be maintained?"

Through a series of artist-led and interdisciplinary action research projects the ‘Nelson Reimagined’ strand will uncover and propose ways in which the Town Deal can put Nelson, and post-industrial places like it, back at the leading edge of socio-economic development. By creating a vision of the future we can co-create we will explore what we have already (the roots and shoots of sustainable futures embedded in the cracks and margins), what we can take as the next steps (how to feed, grow and augment what is there – the groundwork required), and ultimately how will we take care of this New Nelson through the co-creation of new community infrastructure that will ensure its bright future is a sustainable one (embedding the tools for transformation back into the community).

Image: Diane Muldowney

Artist Sharing Weekend, Group outside the This is Nelson Hub at Building Bridges Pendle

In November 2022 In-Situ, along with partners Building Bridges, commissioned four artists to kick-off this action research, each with a defined but interconnected field of enquiry:

Michael Powell looked at underused spaces and the commons in the town centre; Kristina Borg explored the environment and natural resources of Nelson; Dana Olărescu gathered knowledge around growing and food especially from new arrivals in the area and Sam Jones researched histories and present-day examples of co-operation, collectivism and self-management in and around Nelson.

Alongside this I continued my own research around the Future of Work in Nelson and Pendle. The methods that the artists employed in their artistic research included participatory mapping, guided walks, site visits, and observation and discussion with locals at events like the Community Assemblies organised by This Is Nelson.

Image: Diane Muldowney

Michael Powell, Mapping Nelson Walk

Image: Diane Muldowney

Sam Jones, Artist Sharing Weekend workshop

Image: Diane Muldowney

Michael Powell, Mapping Nelson Walk

"how will we take care of this New Nelson through the co-creation of new community infrastructure that will ensure its bright future is a sustainable one"

Over the coming weeks each of the artists will explicate on their experiences and findings that were drawn together in an exhibition and event series on the weekend of 29th-30th of April 2023. In the first year we have also hosted a series of Interdisciplinary Talks that have paired together artists, academics and activists with ‘local experts’ to inspire and generate prompts, provocations and questions that will help raise the ambition of what is possible here and what a Nelson Reimagined could be.

The Town Deal funding presents opportunity to radically rethink the role our postindustrial towns can play in building a more sustainable and fairer future for Nelson and beyond. I feel very fortunate to be able to embrace that opportunity with the support, expertise and good will of like-minded postindustrial town enthusiasts, and I’m looking forward to seeing what wheels we can set in motion here.

Andy Abbott is an artist, musician, writer and arts organiser based in West Yorkshire. He has exhibited and performed internationally as an individual artist and in various collaborations including the art collective Black Dogs. In 2012 he was awarded his practice-led PhD from the University of Leeds with a thesis on ‘art, self-organised cultural activity and the production of postcapitalist subjectivity’. Andy was Visiting Research Curator for the UNIDEE Residency Programs at Cittadellarte Fondazione Pistoletto, Italy 2020 – 2022 where he programmed and delivered a series of international artist residencies focused on embedded practices. Prior to that he managed the embedded arts strand of a Landscape Partnership as Environment Programme Co-ordinator for In-Situ, and between 2016 - 2018 piloted a Centre for Socially Applied Arts as Producer Music and Visual Arts for University of Bradford. Andy is currently the Lead Artist for the This Is Nelson town deal programme.

About This Is Nelson and Nelson Reimagined

This Is Nelson is the cultural strand of the Nelson Town Deal led by In-Situ and Building Bridges. It will engage with Nelson’s communities through a programme of activities and events and the reactivation of places and spaces.

As outlined in the Nelson Town Deal website and literature the £25million investment offers a ‘once in a generation’ opportunity to improve the future of Nelson, promising new hope and a brighter future.

Nelson Reimagined, the artist-led strand of the This Is Nelson programme will embrace this forward-looking aspect of the Town Deal - focusing on the longer-term impact the investment could have; creating a sense of shared ownership and pride around the future of the town; and making space for bold and brave collective imagination and speculative world-building in the programme.


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