Just before Whitsun, on the quietest news day of the year, the Cube sculpture in the Bearpit was pulled down by Bristol Waste, under the instruction of Deputy Mayor, Asher Craig.
A number of people, including Asher Craig (Bristol Labour Councillor), Martin Fodor (Bristol Green Party Councillor) and Robbie Gillett (AdBlock Bristol) have since then discussed the issue of the Cube on BCFM Radio, presented by Tony Gosling.
The Cube sculpture, a non-corporate billboard
The Cube was built by PRSC in 2013, financed by public money through an Arts Council grant, and at the time of its demolition was being used for a campaign about illegal air pollution in the City, working with Friends of the Earth Bristol. On Friday 25th May, the structure was removed by Bristol Waste.
Robbie Gillett declared this to be a “tragic loss”, as the billboard was ‘the exception to the rule’: one of the few non-corporate billboards in the City, and certainly the most prominent.
Bristol Waste removing the Cube sculpture on Friday before Whitsun, under the instruction of Deputy Mayor Asher Craig.
Planning enforcement procedure
The Cube sculpture, together with ‘Ursa’ the Bear, the trader’s stalls and the other infrastructure was built when the Bearpit was a Community Action Zone. The Bearpit Improvement Group, who managed the space, agreed that none of the structures needed planning permission.
The lack of planning permission now seems to be the reason that the Cube was taken down by the Council.
However, normal procedure would be to serve an enforcement notice to the owners of the structure, in this case PRSC.
Martin Fodor, former chair of several Bristol planning committees, agrees that this did not happen. He adds that this is quite unusual; Bristol City Council usually goes out of its way to enable someone to gain permission for a development.
“If we cleared away stuff that doesn’t have permission, there would have been 14 houses knocked down in Ashton, and all sorts of extensions wiped out.” – Martin Fodor
“It looks like Bristol City Council is sometimes trying to help people, and other times it is simply not interested.” says Tony Gosling. Fodor thinks it depends on who is trying to achieve what.
Carla Denyer of the Green Party recently started working on getting an abandoned billboard removed on Whiteladies Road. But this example is completely unlike the case of the Cube sculpture, which is an artwork, and has been curated for years by the community. Not to mention that Denyer has followed the appropriate procedures, rather than simply taking the law into her own hands.
An absence of planning permission isn’t as unusual as you may think. Community organisations and Adblock Bristol have discovered that many billboards around the City have no planning permission whatsoever. The research into exposing this is difficult and lengthy, and arguably the burden of proof should lie with the advertisers.
Representing protest, dissent, and the commons
The Cube sculpture represents a powerful challenge to the status quo. Since its creation, its messages have been inspired by the NHS, TTIP, climate change, electoral reform, AdBlock, air pollution and more. It is the voice of protest, of dissent, a timely reminder that other worlds are possible.
The Cube sculpture is the only place in Bristol where a variety of individual artists have got a space they can work with, where their artwork gets a lot of exposure. With a publicly funded installation or facility such as the Cube sculpture, the Council shouldn’t be trashing it.
The Bearpit Outdoor Gallery hosted its first major international exhibition, “Resiste” in October 2016.
Many of the works displayed in the Bearpit were original prints, as used in the streets of Oaxaca during the teachers’ protests that summer.
Having disregarded the procedures for planning enforcement, Bristol City Council could be accused of having committed criminal damage. When asked about this possible criminality during the BCFM interview on 2nd August, Asher Craig’s response is that one should ‘try me in court!‘.
Sometimes the art featured on the Cube sculpture could be seen as poking fun at the Council. Craig mentions other stuff that was kind of disrespectful of the Council – so is taking down the Cube sculpture a matter of censorship? Craig says criticising the Council can be done by writing in, sending a letter, coming to the Council etc. Painting a piece of board doesn’t seem included in these options.
Craig: “On the one hand people say you can’t have advertising in the City but hey, allow us to have our own advertising space.” Recently there were over 50 planning applications for digital billboards in Bristol city centre alone (read here and here), and this is not counting the existing hoardings. It is an understatement that the ratio of corporate vs. non-corporate hoardings is unbalanced.
To repress one dissenting community voice does beg the question who the Council favours. With a track record featuring art (Tom Sledgemore, UWE student), protest (dangerous air pollution), community support (Save the NHS), and exhibitions (Journey to Justice, Resiste) the Council is actively repressing the voice of the people and organisations without corporate money.
Who has control over the visual realm of the City? And what does it say about Bristol City Council when it goes out of its way to remove the most significant non-corporate billboard in the City whilst it tolerates many corporate billboards that have no planning permission.
And what does this say about a government that ignores process, repressing the voice of dissenters and protesters whilst allowing, even promoting, the voice of the rich and powerful. Some things never change.
A piece questioning budget cuts to the NHS, December 2017.
Listen here to the interviews
Below is a radio interview on BCFM from 2nd August 2018, where Bearpit art curator Lisa Furness and Councillor Asher Craig talk about the Bearpit as an art space. Listen to an excerpt of the BCFM interview below, or find the complete session here.
The discussion about the Bearpit was followed on 8th August by a discussion of the legalities of taking down the Bearpit Cube, the iconic non-commercial billboard in Bristol. Councillor and ex-planning chair Martin Fodor, and AdBlock Bristol campaigner Robbie Gillet discuss billboard planning permissions and the seemingly random approach by Bristol City Council to help or trash developments as they please. Listen to an excerpt of the BCFM interview below, or find the complete session here.
A piece by SEPR on the Cube sculpture.