Tower block talent: the remarkable story of Tenantspin 

Liverpool arts activist Eddie Berg was the international guest speaker for CDU's Creative Citizenship symposium

The regeneration of the social life of a decaying tower block in Liverpool might seem a world away from the central desert of Australia.

But these two worlds came together when Liverpool arts activist Eddie Berg traveled to Alice Springs as the international guest speaker for Charles Darwin University’s Creative Citizenship symposium.

Mr Berg, the founder of Liverpool’s FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology), detailed the remarkable journey of a group of tower block residents who agreed to take part in his highly imaginative, and in some ways, daring, experiment in social cohesion and community creativity.

In 1999 Mr Berg determined to use the power of his arts organisation to develop a project that would reinvigorate a part of his beloved city, which had fallen behind in Britain’s economic boom times.

In older parts of the city the tower blocks built in the 1960s were being torn down, replaced by new experiments in low-rise housing.

But many blocks still remained, the elderly residents isolated in their small apartments, with little sense of community feeling. They were unfamiliar with modern tools of communication such as the Internet, and most had never even used a computer.

Mr Berg’s idea, developed with his colleagues at FACT, was to invite the residents to regain their sense of community by taking part in a unique webcasting project called Tenantspin.

It would mean the tenants coming together to learn computer skills, set up their own website and stream their own arts-related projects into the wonderful global world of self-expression, commentary, entertainment and the exploration of ideas.

Helping them achieve their aims was a Danish group of artists called Superflex, skilled in the multi-disciplinary arts who gently encouraged the elderly residents to embrace new ideas about creativity and information exchange.

At times these Danish artists took up residence in unoccupied flats in the tower block known as Coronation Court, many of whose residents had been there since its opening in 1967.

Financial assistance for the project was provided by Liverpool’s Housing Action Trust, an organisation keen to revitalise the social fabric of the tower blocks.

Tenants began streaming their programs from Coronation Court in September, 1999, beginning with a series of programs in which they interviewed the original architect of their tower block and debated the conditions in which they lived.

“The residents do their own research, editing and streaming of the webcasts,” Mr Berg told the symposium.

Initially interest in the project was confined to about 15 residents, but once the webcasting was seen to be successful, others quickly joined and the experiment extended to other tower blocks.

Over the past six years Tenantspin has grown in scope and ambition, to the point where its editing studios had to be moved out of the tower block and into the FACT building.

It has since moved on to its own purpose built studio which has become a community centre for tower block residents.

Many of the residents have also traveled overseas to engage with artists at summer schools and festivals.

“Most of the tenants are from the generation that missed out on technology, and many of them lived alone,” he said. “But then they suddenly found themselves in a whole new world of artists and program-making with Tenantspin.

“They have built their own cultural environment and are becoming very skilled at running their own internet TV channel.”

One of the residents, 85-year-old Kath, for instance, became so skilled at editing that she now works in a fulltime job as a post-production editor for professional program makers.

The residents have also invited British media personalities such as Lord David Puttnam and writer Will Self to become part of their shows, and were invited by the BBC to write their own play about life in the tower blocks.

“If I never get another chance to do an arts project, then Tenantspin will have been the best thing I have been involved in, and the one of which I’m proudest,” Mr Berg told the symposium.

“If you want to transform people’s lives then give them new skills,” he concluded.

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