Art Mitchell’s Bakery, now Homebaked, is very easy to find, especially if you’ve seen the cake version at the Museum of Liverpool which is amazingly accurate considering it’s made of icing. Just as Carl’s voice-over on that exhibit indicated, it’s within walking distance of Liverpool Football Club, indeed it’s possible to see the stadium from inside the shop. After glancing through the explanatory display in the windows, I tried the door which I entirely failed to open but luckily someone was on-hand inside to let me in and I somehow managed to inadvertently ingratiate myself by asking if there was coffee available which I thought was for sale but turned out to be for something else entirely.
This unexpected guest (sorry) was made entirely welcome by the inhabitants, who explained their motives for being there, and everything I’d need to know about the project. The interior is now completely different to the photograph on the wall at the Museum of Liverpool. That suggests something akin to an independent bakers in the style of a chain like Greggs. Blue paint has been stripped from the walls to reveal the original white tiling and the deco counters have temporarily been replaced with rough wooden tables and chests of drawers giving it a country bakery feel or a hipster coffee shop. It’s cosy, welcoming.
The bakery was opening this morning because The Reader organisation, a group which seeks to gather people together to enjoy literature, were having their meeting. I know them well. I have the first issue of their journal around here somewhere having been handed it during a poetry course at the continuing education school at Liverpool University. The idea is that people can develop their confidence by reading to the group their favourite passages and discuss them, to enjoy literature and indeed promote literature as not being as intimidating as it sometimes appears. As a Shakespeare fan, this is something I can entirely endorse.
This is just the sort of initiative the Homebaked hopes will be at the centre of its operation going forward. The rooms at the back of the ground floor will hopefully be converted so that groups like this can have meetings there, attempt to re-ignite the sense of community which could dwindle further as the remodelling of the area proceeds. The bakery has already been the site of the planning consultations on what the ultimate use of the building will be, how the building and the connected terrace will be best utilised. At time of visiting all of the plans are pretty much set.
The ground floor will mostly continue to be a bakery. According to their website the building will “house a production and training kitchen, a traditional bakery shop front, a couple of tables to sit and have a coffee with your cake, and a hatch to serve food straight onto the street on match days.” There are already taster days, but the process it rightly proceeding slowly. They hope to open properly next year but will have the odd trial day here and there so that they can get the operation just right. But the multi-purpose use is clever. It means at least as a business, the bakery already has a potentially large audience.
The rest of the building will be turned into a flats for young people transitioning into their own homes, somewhere to live if they’re not getting on with their parents, and a professional whose work may be connected to the project in some way. The interiors of the other houses in the terrace will be remodelled to fit with the specific needs of various society groups, pensioners on the ground floor, for example. The internal architecture of the building reminds me of the student houses I’ve lived in and the change in use is a huge undertaking. But the right amount of thought has gone into the choices being made and again, nothing is being rushed into.
As it stands all of the aspects of the old bakery are still being stored in one room or other and Kealey, the volunteer who was patient enough to help explain all this to me, says that nothing is being wasted. The original counters will be cleaned and put back into use. The glass sign that hung in the window will be turned into a coffee table. There are still dozens of the original baking tins and although they’re too far gone for their original purpose, they’re to be turned into planters for a garden round the back and donated to other groups in the community. They might even be built into an entirely new structure.
All of which means that when the bakery opens, I’ll be back. As I was leaving I made sure I’d signed up to the relevant mailing lists, became a supporter. The Homebaked Community Bakery, which is what the site is going to become has a clear, practical plan with, and although I hate the phrase I’m going to use it anyway because it fits so well, “blue sky thinking”. When asked the question “What does living well mean to you?” on the 2up2down website, Kealey says “Living well is being happy and having your family and friends around you and being safe and secure in the area that you live in. It’s that simple.” I couldn’t agree more.
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But how does Mitchell’s Bakery fit within the structure of the Biennial? Apparently it’s been one of the most popular aspects of the festival with the weekend Anfield Home tours which end there having to increase their frequency due to over-subscription and that’s presumably because it's of interest to a wide spectrum of people, both Biennial tourists and local residents from all over the city (and those of us who sit within the central slice of that venn diagram). Certainly if I wasn’t working at the weekend I would have taken the tour too. As I mentioned to the people I met, coming from South Liverpool, the north of the city is like unknown territory.
It’s also worth noting that this is not an unusual project for Jeanne Van Heeswijk, whose work tends to be about transforming social spaces and increasing community involvement. The Blue House (Het Blauwe Huis) in IJburg, Amsterdam invites artists from throughout the world to visit and interact with the local community in a “housing association for the mind”. Her original idea was apparently to simply create a temporary installation of some kind but she decided that rather than simply creating discussion, something practical and physical needed to be achieved with the help of core participants from the area.
In other words, if this is art, it's art as co-operative community project. Like Suzanne Lacy’s happenings, it’s about the engagement of ideas and participation rather than simply creating an object that can simply be looked at before the visitor moves on to the next thing. Like the Everton Park project and the work enunciated by Hsieh Ying-Chun at Exchange Flags, it’s about revealing to those communities that they needn’t accept the control which being passed down to them through local governance or natural disaster or both. They can take their own control of their lives. Few artworks at this Biennial are as thematically rich.
Yet what’s most impressive is the sense of hope. Living in this country at this time, there’s not a lot of hope around. I don’t feel like a very hopeful person. But sitting around that table this morning, listening to everything which is planned for that building and its adjoining properties and, all being well, how many people could potentially be touched by what they’re doing, from the young people given respite in the flats or trained in the bakery right down to the football supporters who’ll have something tasty to eat on match day, I actually felt very hopeful for the first time in ages. The coffee was nice too.