A review of ‘Pretty Vacant’ by Georgina Conroy
In the last few years there have been two recurring discussions that I have had with friends about living in Yeovil. The first I have mainly had with other people that live here. It’s something we’ve chatted about over coffee, at the school gate or at parties. In fact it’s a subject that almost invariably arose when whenever there was a group of people who live in Yeovil gathered together. We talked about what was happening to the shops in the centre of town. A couple of years ago that conversation centred of the number of charity shops there are; we would list them whenever a new one appeared. Often was the time when we’d count them up and agree with sage nods that, while it was a shame that the shops which had been there were no longer there (how did we ever learn to live without Woolworths?), it was good that those buildings weren’t being left empty. At some point between then and now, though, Yeovil must have reached charity shop saturation point because there were no more charity shops opening but there were plenty more shops closing. This time they mostly stayed closed and unoccupied. We started to get used to the empty windows and to the ‘To Let’ signs: we no longer noticed them and so the talking petered out.
The second conversation topic started when I became a fine art student (bear with me). This conversation was about Yeovil not being ‘arty’, whatever that is supposed to mean. Yeovil is a pretty large town but it’s just not seen as somewhere that is culturally rich. It has become a self-fulfilling prophecy: People thought there was not much culture here so no one thought it was worth bringing it here.
Then, a couple of Saturdays ago (15th June 2013), something happened which may help change the narrative of both those conversations and help remind Yeovil of what it has the potential to be.
I wondered into town with my family: mainly from curiosity on my part as I had received an email and Facebook invitation to Pretty Vacant, I’d also seen posters and ads for it in various places. I knew there would be hourly live performances of the Sex Pistols song by various musicians throughout the afternoon, there would be something new up in some of the empty shop windows and that the whole thing was in relation to the empty shops in town. We arrived not long before the second performance of the afternoon and the first thing we noticed, apart from what seemed to be an unusual rise in the number of buskers hanging around in the Quedam, were the shop windows that the buskers were standing by. In these shops instead of the usual, gormless looking, posters of ‘happy shoppers’ that are the ironic fate of so many vacant units across England, there were these futuristic looking images in the windows. Each of these images is made up of what appear to be line drawings of rectangular blocks suspended in in the middle of each window. The blocks look as if they have just been frozen in the process of either falling away or exploding outwards towards the viewer. To me they are reminiscent of skyscrapers or giant Jenga blocks tumbling, my daughter says they remind her of the card file drawers you used to get in libraries which she’s seen in movies (‘like the opening scenes of Ghostbusters, mum’) or really long CD boxes, my husband sees broken glass. They have mirrored sections which reflect passers-by, the ‘unhappy shoppers’ as a contrast to the happy shoppers mentioned before perhaps? When I went back at a later date to have another look without so much distraction I saw, on closer inspection that the mirrored areas are on different levels depending on the window, some are on the same level as the lines, some on the outside of the Perspex sheets that the images are drawn on and some on the outside of the glass. So what appears to be a solid thing is really disjointed only giving the appearance of solidity. It says something about our town centre being a place which seems all one thing but is actually made from disjointed parts, especially at the moment with all of the gaps that the unoccupied shops make. The architectural look to the work reminds me of the Welcome to Yeovil sign which states ‘The heart of the country, the mind of a city’, which has always struck me as a disjointed idea. The work in these shop fronts definitely speaks to me of ‘the mind of a city’, whether that is a good or bad thing is yet to be seen.
When the clock struck one, the music started. All at once those musicians that we’d at first taken for buskers started playing and, at first, it was hard to make out the song from which this event had taken its name. Each of the musicians had given the Sex Pistols’ classic their own spin, their interpretations of Pretty Vacant ranged from Sweet and gentle through jazzy to almost comical but as I walked through the Quedam and between the musicians it started to make sense. There are so many shops empty in the centre of a community that could be bustling; you can still catch glimpses of it sometimes. Each shop is an individual opportunity, like the different versions of the song or the designs in the shop windows, but they all reflect a single history, a single community, a single future. While there might be several commercial reasons to get the shops occupied by businesses isn’t it also true that we, as a town, need to find creative uses for those premises? Uses which may or may not be about immediate profit but which help our community regain its self-esteem and benefit all sections of that community. This project, and let’s hope it is merely the first of many, may be the starting point where we find out what this town really needs to remain vibrant.
‘Pretty Vacant’ is a new collaboration between OSR Project artist, Simon Lee Dicker and students from Yeovil College Music Department is taking place in various locations throughout Yeovil Town Centre from 15 June – 30 July. www.simonleedicker.co.uk/project/pretty-vacant
(Live performances mentioned took place Saturday 15 June at The Quedam, Vicarage Walk, Town Centre, Yeovil BA20 1EX)
Georgina Conroy is a Yeovil resident and recently graduated artist.