Vanessa Kisuule is one of three Artists-in-Residence working with local communities on projects to celebrate the regeneration of the Temple Quarter area and document its heritage.
Vanessa is an award winning spoken word artist, recently appointed as Bristol’s city poet. She’ll be sharing her reflections and writing poems which explore the stories of the local area and its inhabitants, collecting memories from the past and hopes for the future.
Click here to share your stories with Vanessa or call 0117 428 2322.
The Sorting Office Site: A Halfway House of Ghost Stories
It takes a considerable leap of the imagination to walk through the cavity of the former Royal Mail sorting office and envisage a gleaming new university campus in its place. Despite its crumbling frame, there is something irrevocably sturdy about the structure. I can’t quite imagine it giving up without a fight. Even the way it will be demolished speaks of architectural stubbornness: rather than blowing up the structure in one cathartic motion, the contractors must ‘nibble’ away at the site with an extractor that will reduce the building to rubble over several weeks. Though initially disappointed that the building wouldn’t meet its end with a literal bang, I now appreciate the subtle poignancy in this death by slow mastication. It’s fitting that parts be taken away gradually, much in the way the building has decayed of its own accord in the twenty-two years since the sorting office was shut down. It’s the perpetual affliction of a poet to see metaphor in the most arbitrary of happenstance, but I like to hope this idea is striking for others to contemplate as well.
The archival responsibilities we have to a space, even when we are radically changing it, are fascinating to ponder. As we were escorted around the site, stories of varying plausibility were relayed to us. Some were mostly true with the inevitable garnish of hyperbole, others seemed to be mere urban myths. But don’t the myths we make up become a part of our historical truth in their own way? The site, in this way, feels like a halfway house of ghost stories. Indeed, there are stories as yet untold beneath one’s very feet around the perimeter of the site. There are an estimated 70-1000 bodies buried there after a cholera epidemic that swept the city in the 1800s. It is strange to think of the ethical duty we have to lives long gone and silenced under asphalt. But what a testament to the cyclical nature of time: as we build something new, we must also reconcile with the past that we dig up in the process.
As I walked along the pitted floors scattered with pigeon feathers, desiccated carpet squares and endless mountains of debris, I couldn’t help but marvel at the playfulness of the space and how much of an inadvertent playground it has become. To speak of its ‘aesthetic’ would be suggestive of a deliberate curation that is not at play, but there does seem to be an incidental beauty here. I found myself charmed by the asymmetric chunks of tiles making scrambled mosaics on the floor, the walls that boasted meticulous murals and graffiti tags that would not look out of place in parts of Stokes Croft. It’s the sort of environment that media agencies spend thousands artificially creating for edgy networking events and pop up vintage stalls. If the university hadn’t bought this site, I wouldn’t have been surprised if a young tattooed micro-brewer specialising in niche IPAs had instead.
But this space is not the all too common facsimile of counter culture we’re so used to seeing these days. There is a genuine spikiness here, an authentic deviance that is both bleak and thrilling. One of the old safes is reimagined as the locked entrance to a gay bar, an ominous political commentary if ever I saw one. The tags ‘Le Peng’ and ‘SHN’ recur frequently, the monikers of artists who have flaunted their stealth in getting into the building undetected. I fell a little bit in love with the swaggering aggression of this towering, majestic eyesore, the simultaneous fragility and belligerence of this not-quite-place. As an artist and as a human, I have learnt how to feel at home in the belly of a contradiction, so it stands to reason that this site speaks to me on a guttural level. It’s hard to imagine a time when it was an orderly place of work where things were filed and organised into neat piles and people dutifully clocked in and out. I am interested in these stories of the postal workers, how their regimented schedules may compare and contrast with the street artists who, decades later, scrambled into the husk of this once functioning business to reappropriate it in their own names.
These stories may not be the remarkable kind that traditional history is so enamoured with. They are not the narratives on which instrumental change hinges. But they are the stories that have character and spunk, that perhaps relate to the communities we are trying so hard to retain as our cities become increasingly modern. The only hope for the survival of these stories is to ask probing questions and seek out those who may have answers, however partial.
There will be a lot of conflicting opinions about this campus and what it means for the landscape of Bristol. Pertinent and uncomfortable discussions must be had as to who benefits from these changes and who potentially suffers or gets left behind. Whilst emphasising the exciting potential of developments like the Temple Quarter, we must also give space for uncertainty, for fear, for lament and respectful commemoration of what has been.
I don’t want to be a vessel for glib evangelising for the campus, as brilliant as I think it has the potential to be. This residency, for me, is a chance to think deeply about the stories we tell ourselves about the cities we hope to inhabit. It’s nigh on impossible to disentangle truth from myth, hope from delusion, blue sky thinking from bottom line economics. With the help of my fellow Bristol citizens, I hope to make work that holds this dissonance with humour and care, that understands the trauma that comes with change and also the hopeful progression. Rather than forcing neat conclusions, I hope to make work as messy, provocative, angry, complex, beautiful and compelling as the site itself.