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Working with artists and commissioning new public artworks helps to shift perceptions. The urban bench, more commonly seen as a utilitarian piece of street furniture, can be re-established as an object that contributes significantly to the rhythm of a city. BENCH was inspired by the AHRC funded ‘Connecting Communities’ research project and a document written by Radhika Bynon and Clare Rishbeth entitled; Benches for Everyone: Manifesto for the Good Bench. It lays out the importance of the humble bench as a free social resource that enables people to be outside for longer, supporting their physical and mental health and importantly to be part of the flux of city living, by temporarily sitting, pausing, observing others and being seen. Providing the opportunity for individuals to be co-present is a vital role of the bench, welcoming us into a space, encourage us to remain, creating a greater sense of community and belonging.

Due to recent lockdowns, the absence of people has laid bare the structures of the city in ways we may have never imagined before. In challenging and difficult times, artists can help us process complex emotions and better envisage the future, providing opportunities for expansive imagination. Few people will encounter a piece of public art and think or feel nothing.

By inviting artists to play with the humble format of the bench, the project seeks to acknowledge and explore its impact on the space in which it sits. The local artists involved come from a range of backgrounds and lived experiences of the city and their artistic intentions are wide ranging and varied. Their approaches have ranged from, acknowledgement of the history of the city, the importance of our mental health, an exploration of haiku poetry and bench plaques, reminders to rest and enjoy the present moment, through to pure animation of space and a colourful celebration of resilience in hard times.

Public, pedestrianised spaces within cities can be ever fluctuating microcosms with multiple connections between past, present and future, influenced by different rhythms throughout the day as people ebb and flow through the space. As we hopefully begin to populate the city once more, it is hoped that the new benches may help the transition, offer an opportunity to develop an eye for detail and attentiveness to the seemingly unimportant.

Benches supplied by Balfour Beatty, project managed by Solent Showcase Gallery (part of Solent University) and made possible by funding from GO! Southampton and Solent University's Covid-19 Response Fund, which provides support to Solent University students and the wider community, with donations from alumni, staff and friends of the University.

The support of the Covid-19 fund from Solent University has unlocked the opportunity for Solent Showcase Gallery to continue with our valued community work despite a temporary gallery closure, thus continuing to connect with wider audiences across the city.

Solent alumni involved in the project

Solent staff involved in the project

Local artists involved in the project

Solent Showcase Gallery hopes to be able to build on this successful project to gain funding to expand BENCH into the suburbs of the city and work with artists who live and work in those locations to create bench projects that are rooted in research based on space, place and how welcoming and safe they feel.

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