Julia Heslop is an artist and writer who works mainly in sculpture and installation. Her work could be said to sit in the space between art and architecture. Not content with the confines of the gallery space her most recent work can be found in the outdoors; in spaces of social interaction. She is interested in how urban space and architecture affect how people interact in a social sense, and her work questions how we produce and maintain social and public spaces in an age of changing neoliberalism.

In 2013 she received a commission from the Maison de la Culture in Amiens, France to complete a permanent architectural installation for the Hortillonnages: Amiens’ floating gardens. Her piece ‘Traversing the Round’ formed part of the Art, Cities and Landscape festival in the summer of 2013. In 2012, as part of her MFA, she presented her work at the Hatton Gallery, Newcastle, and, working alongside an architect and an archaeologist, at the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale as part of REcall, an on-going project which seeks to formulate a new role for the architectural environment through the re-appropriation of European sites with a difficult history. This project has also taken her to Rome in 2013 and, forthcoming, Berlin in 2014.

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Much of Julia's previous work has stemmed from research into post-socialist geographies in Albania. She is interested in how people deal with the physical remnants of Communism but also how the urban landscape changes with the politics of the day. She received the Bartlett Travel Bursary awarded by Newcastle University in 2011 for research into Communist and post-Communist architecture in Albania and received this award again in 2012, when she travelled to Belarus and Russia examining highly political forms of urban space and architecture. This research was presented in a lecture at the conference Connecting Principle at Newcastle University in 2012 and at the conference Creative Methodologies in Durham in 2013, where she also examined innovative creative research approaches, including transdisciplinary and participatory methodologies.

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More recently her research has focused on alternative methods of housing in an austerity context; attempting to find solutions to the shortfalls of capitalist planning systems. This concept forms the basis of her PhD in Human Geography. The PhD involves a critical examination of self-build construction as one solution to the current social housing crisis. This research is very much rooted in the austerity politics of the present day. Displacement and homelessness are on the increase and as government budgets are slashed, the state could be said to be in retreat. This has especial pertinence in North East England where reliance on local government services is particularly heavy.

A participatory research approach will involve an examination of established, yet marginalised, practices of informal housing in Albania, and mobilising these self-build approaches within a UK context. Working with a cross-disciplinary team of supervisors, between Human Geography at Durham University and Fine Art at Newcastle University, and in collaboration with Tyne Housing Association (THA), the research will engage Participatory Action Research (PAR) to mobilise a homeless community in Newcastle upon Tyne to develop a small scale self-build housing model. The research will thus fuse geographical theory and practice with design and construction techniques; rethinking the role and impact of transdisciplinary research.

This research will draw lessons from low-income informal housing in the Kombinat, an ex-textile mega-factory in Albania’s capital city, Tirana. The Kombinat is a vibrant, tightly knit community which is fully integrated into city life, whilst the revival of many derelict industrial buildings has triggered urban renewal. Thus the residents have learned to cope with problems pertaining to the diminished responsibility of the state post-Communism. This has particular resonance in relation to the current and future housing situation within the UK in the face of a retreating state. In Tirana I will explore traditions of self-build in conditions of scarcity, and question whether this set of practices can ‘travel’, to be effective in aiding marginal communities in the UK in the face of funding cuts. Crossing borders, the research will be transnational, focusing on policy and planning mobility. This research will thus aim to challenge the age-old colonial assumption that so-called ‘developing’ countries are not models for urban (re)development.

I will then use this first stage of the research as a platform to motivate a dialogue into self-build housing which will form the basis for the second stage: a participatory construction project in Newcastle. Working within the premise of PAR I will work in partnership with the charitable housing organisation Tyne Housing Association (THA). Through THA I will collaborate with a homeless group in Newcastle to build a small housing model that will then be resided in by the participants, creating a physical example of sustainable, low cost methods of housing. The Kombinat research will act as a departure point for the participants, giving them a working example of construction and community building methods from which to draw and develop upon.

The merging of geographical contexts and design/build strategies will offer a distinctive critical stance; merging theory with practice; enabling new perspectives on social and self-build housing. Employing PAR will aid in, and allow for, cross-disciplinary thinking and collaborative action through “the performance of research” (Sanderson et al, 2007: 128), which will be fundamental to create a unique investigation into the wider philosophical contexts relating to urban planning, community participation and social cohesion.

Website: www.juliaheslop.com

Blog: www.unofficialculture.wordpress.com

Email: info@juliaheslop.com