Project Encounter and Workshop 161

Earlier this year, I was privileged to participate in a coworking project: Project Encounter.

Project Encounter was a bunch of us brought together by Creative Midwife (TM!) Carl Jeffrey aka Fellow Creative, via the Tuttle.101 community, to create and populate a website for a local initiative taking place in an empty shop – 161, Rochester High Street (hence, Workshop161!)

Along with myself blogging, we had website builders, Toggle, photographers Kreative Kollective and, filming the whole day, Fidget Box.

It certainly inspired me and I’ve a ton of ideas now playing bumper cars in my head! The concept of empty shops and Encounter was especially helpful during an excellent sitcom writing workshop I recently attended at UCA in Canterbury! You never know, one day it might appear!

The original Project Encounter website has now been taken over by the official Encounter site, so here’s the blog on how the day unfolded …

Introducing Project Encounter and Workshop 161

Welcome to Project Encounter, an exploration of coworking possibilities in meanwhile spaces.

Likeminded creatives will be introducing to the community the benefits of coworking spaces in 161 High Street, Rochester or, as it is now known, Workshop 161. These could range from endeavours such as indoor gardens to creative writing workshops, from social media tutorials to artist makers creating anything.

The only rules are … there are no rules! There are only four principles:

Whoever comes are the right people
Whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened
Whenever it starts is the right time
When it’s over, it’s over.

And there is one law – The Law of Two Feet:

Every individual has two feet and must be prepared to use them. If a discussion isn’t working for you then move on!

For those unable to join us today, we hope to bring you a flavour of the day – if you can make this evening, please join us at the Two Brewers in Rochester for the evening session, Tipple101!

Who’s making use of this space?

Workshop 161 covers three floors of diverse space, from the smallest dark room in the basement, to the large and airy space on the first floor. That, combined with a medium sized room and small office on the first floor, shows the possibility for start up businesses or an office based creative, along with seminars and workshops.

The open space on the ground floor is perfect for workshops or exhibitions, but also has two smaller areas to one side, where maybe planning and organisation can be facilitated or where someone could simply escape for a quiet moment of reflection.

The basement is perhaps one of the most exciting areas – with more than a few visitors today recognising the similarity in feel with the Lightvessel 21 – a long corridor leading to a strong room is an exciting concept for jewellery maker Sian Bostwick, who feels the need now for a ‘home’ space with room to grow, in readiness for exhibitions and trade shows.

Connections were already being evidenced today, with musician, Cat, of ‘The Redfords’ and Cocktail Club’s Helen, discussing possibilities for Helen’s idea of a Tea Party and Vintage Fair, which in turn included dress maker Natasha, whose creations would compliment such an event.

There’s creativity flowing through the building, this is just a snapshot – if you’re reading this, I suspect you have many of your own ideas – if so, the people who can help you will be found in the links page, which will be updated in due course!

Encountering the Empty Shops Network

The second session of the day began with Mary Paterson sharing the good news that the funding for Encounter has been confirmed, to general cheers in the room!

Encounter is a series of six temporary art experiences taking place across urban spaces in North Kent in 2011, and Dan Thompson of the Empty Shops Network was an obvious choice to advise on the concept.

Dan’s first piece of advice was that the Empty Shops Network was much more about information sharing, rather than a how-to-guide. Every project is a different experience, drawing upon the skills of those in attendance. Personally, Dan has been taking local space and using it for years – beginning with an old bakery shop being turned into a community art office. He was just thirteen years old!

In Worthing, an old Allied Carpet showroom was utilised by both the lions Club and smaller, independent charities, as the basis for a massive community market over Christmas; it generated 12000 visitors in just over one month. And during half term, they brought in a Pop-Up Playspace – an inflatable track but with real bumper cars!

However, it isn’t just empty shops that can be used – schools, open spaces and churches are also available. Artists have always been good at finding and recycling open spaces; the Great Reformation in the 16th century is a great example, with dissolved monasteries being turned into theatres or housing new technology – i.e. the printing press!

And in 1961, the vat room and hops warehouse of a brewery was bought by producer Donald Albery and presented to Dame Margot Fonteyn’s London Festival Ballet as a private drama studio and rehearsal room – you may know it as the Donmar warehouse, acquired by the Royal Shakespeare Company and renamed The Warehouse n 1977.

Town centres will likely never be the same – 15% of UK shops are empty and 1 in 5 will never have a commercial future again. The Empty Shops premise involves smaller, more flexible partnerships; the big society in action. Dan reckons meanwhile spaces are becoming long term spaces and town centres a combination of leisure spaces and high quality independent traders within a vibrant café culture. Shops host book signings, music gigs and the festivals and street markets bring fresh footfall.

You think you can’t change things but it’s your town, your high street and you can change it for the better. Anthropologist Margaret Meads said: “Never doubt that a small group of committed citizens can change the world. Indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Find out more at the Empty Shops Network website  and download their toolkit for guidance on how you can make thing happen in your community.

Open Space Tuttle Encounters!

Led by Mary, Open Space is a discussion technique of a similar style to Tuttle, i.e. informal – no name badges, more akin to the coffee break at a conference, where you’ll frequently engage in the more interesting conversations.

There’s a wish to focus on the passion and responsibility – what can we do, as opposed to referring elsewhere. It’s for you to participate in any way you feel best: steer a conversation, listen for inspiration or simply move on to the next.

Seven topics were suggested, seven groups to move amongst: Traffic (which subsequently proved to be one covered more generally; movement is needed wherever an empty space occurs, movement of people along high streets to new projects, to see and engage in something they wouldn’t normally.) Performance; What do we want in Kent?; Students; Artistic and community value; Funding (can we really do anything without it?) and finally, Crazy Golf. Yes, really.

I sat in on the lively Crazy Golf discussion as it seemed to tick all the boxes for a genuine collaborative effort. It would be fundable by paying customers, as they would any other activity; involve many shop owners/landlords and maybe other local businesses by way of sponsorship; it’s family orientated; equipment such as flags and holes themselves could be made via creative workshops; holes could be tied up with smaller local charities or community initiatives – remove the middle man and fund what matters to us.

A popular theme was Alice in Wonderland, with maybe the White Rabbit or Mad Hatter meandering, like the holes themselves, along the high street, handing out goodies to drive (metaphorically or maybe even physically) visitors on their way to each space. The possibilities were endless and time ran out – but discussions are no doubt continuing. (Probably in the 19th Hole!)

How to summarise? A bunch of buzz words, thrown out there at the session’s end, with all participants back together again: engagement within the community; encouragement; help; connectivity; opportunities; value; relevance; appreciation; incorporation; legacy.

It’s amazing how much can be done …

A fluid formula for co-working existed in Workshop161 on 28th February, the Big Society in action, with attendees guided by suggestions then driving the resultant ideas forward themselves, under the theme of Encounter.

“A really inspiring day for everyone who was here – you can see partnerships emerging” – Dan Thompson, Empty Shops Network

Upstairs, downstairs and everywhere in between, participants were inspired, enthused and willing to collaborate in some kind of sustainable enterprise, creatively using empty shops and meanwhile spaces to the benefit of the whole community.

“Things are alive and real – it’s beyond talk” – Steve Rowland, Made Labs

Watch the awesome video courtesy of Fidgit Box and view the stunning photos of Kreative Kollective, bringing the day to life. It was a pleasure and a privilege to be a part of the Tuttle.101 team alongside them and everyone else involved.


“It’s amazing how much can be done in a day with no initial budget…” – Carl Jeffrey, Fellow Creative

2012 Update: Workshop 161 has since become Rochester’s coworking space, coFWD, with many freelancers busily creating just as the concept intended! Update 2014: Sadly, the 161 space is no longer in use, although the coFWD community are still in touch.

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