Review  /  Arts & culture

Preston Street Union rolls out the red carpet

The Exeter-based artists explore migration driven by the city's historic wool trade in new work commissioned by RAMM.

Preston street union   Ramm  

Sir Thomas Dyke Acland stands proud beside the Roman wall in Northernhay Gardens, a century and a half after his death. The inscription on his statue pays tribute to his “generous heart and open hand, which have been ever ready to protect the weak, to relieve the needy, and to succour the oppressed”.

Five figures approach the statue in line, dressed in black utility-style clothing and matching communist caps. They assemble in formation and draw red ping-pong paddles from tool belts, displaying them against their chests. Turning, they look up towards four similarly-clad figures who have appeared at the top of the wall. They lift their paddles in the air as if in salute.

A paddle raised in reply signals the division of the ground crew into two. They stand legs astride and with arms outstretched, seeming to anticipate action. A whistle sounds and a long roll of bright red serge fabric is unfurled from the top of the wall. It is suspended against the wall for several moments before being dropped to the ground in a crumpled heap.

The serge is gathered then pulled taut before two of the figures begin to carefully roll the cloth into a tight wind. The wall crew arrive and all engage in smoothing out creases and kinks, picking at lint, fussing over their task. They take turns, wordless and workmanlike, occasionally pausing to survey their progress. Finally, the tightly wound roll is hoisted onto shoulders and all the figures depart.

Preston Street Union present SERGE/SURGE at Cricklepit Mill Preston Street Union present SERGE/SURGE at Cricklepit Mill. Photo: Leigh Curtis

We just witnessed a performance of SERGE/SURGE by Preston Street Union, a group of Exeter-based artists formed in 2015. The piece was performed four times over the course of an afternoon in different locations around the city walls. 

For the second performance we head to the footpath below Yaroslavl Bridge, halfway down to the quay. Tourists, dog walkers and passers-by stop to stare; some stand back, reluctant to stride past the action. When the whistle blows and the serge tumbles, because the wall here is shorter than before, the fabric rolls out across the grass, resembling a red carpet laid out for distinguished visitors.

A seldom-used footpath overlooking Cricklepit Mill is the site of the third performance. The confined space brings performers and audience closer together, as if participating in a piece of street theatre. We return to Northernhay Gardens for the final performance which, this time, takes place below the highest point of the castle wall. The ramparts here are toweringly tall. When the serge unfurls it brings to mind the image of a conquering army hanging their banners on newly-captured city walls.

The serge is then loosely gathered and lifted onto the shoulders of five of the figures, who parade past the onlookers to the conclusion of the performance. Trays of Exeter puddings, from a recipe by Mrs Beeton, are presented on a white tablecloth embroidered with the words “generous heart and open hand” in red thread. Audience, not performers, tuck in.

Preston Street Union present SERGE/SURGE at Northernhay Gardens Preston Street Union present SERGE/SURGE at Northernhay Gardens. Photo: RAMM

Preston Street Union say these four performance sites roughly correspond with compass points. Options for sites were limited by many of the remaining sections of Roman wall being inaccessible as they sit on private land or beside car parks. The group’s focus on the complex history of Exeter’s walls is a response to RAMM’s 2019 migration theme, which is the basis of the commission brief.

The group was given special access to RAMM’s collections by the museum’s curators to enable the development of the piece. This led its members to consider Exeter’s historic wool trade, which brought many skilled migrants to the city from the fifteenth century to its peak in the eighteenth century. The group became interested in North American artefacts in the museum’s collection which contained fragments of red woollen cloth produced in the South West.

How did these pieces of fabric, which were originally intended for military uniforms, make it across the Atlantic? RAMM say they were traded to build relationships with indigenous peoples. According to Preston Street Union, they ultimately became incentives for the surrender of ancestral land to colonisers. Exeter’s walls similarly represent the capture and enclosure of indigenous land by foreign invaders. People and traded goods may have later flowed through these walls, but they were actually built to keep people out.

Hostile reaction to migrants is often expressed in describing their arrival as “surges”. They nevertheless bring demonstrable economic and cultural benefits. Preston Street Union presents the serge cloth that was largely responsible for Exeter’s historic wealth, much of which was created by skilled migrants, as a symbol that represents many things for the city. Not only can it do duty as a welcoming red carpet, it also signifies a metaphorical breach of the city walls, as well as a bridge across them that connects people inside with those without.

Preston Street Union proposes serge as a symbol for migration that is specific to Exeter. Like Thomas Acland’s dyed-in-the-wool establishment outlook, it has much to say about both the city’s present and past.


SERGE/SURGE was the first part of a two stage work commissioned by RAMM and supported by the Arts Council. The second part is due this autumn.


 is arts & culture editor of Exeter Observer and a director of its publisher Greater Exeter CIC.

 

 subedited this article.

More Arts & Culture
Photo of The Jambassadors by Gabe Riedlinger

Preview  /  Arts & culture

Jambassadors feature in pop-up Jazz Toast at Barnfield Theatre

Musical director Roz Harding invites us to join an Exeter College Music Academy student collective in a one-night-only experimental exploration of in-the-moment improvisation.

Read more ...

Extreme Imagination - inside the mind's eye exhibition at Exeter RAMM

Review  /  Arts & culture

Extreme Imagination - Inside the Mind's Eye

University of Exeter research fellow Dr Matthew MacKisack guides us through a RAMM exhibition that explores works by artists, writers and makers with widely varying visual imaginations.

Read more ...

Exeter College students in A Midsummer Night's Dream at Barnfield Theatre

Review  /  Arts & culture

Playing with gender expectations at Barnfield Theatre

An Exeter College interpretation of A Midsummer Night's Dream transforms it into an enchanting contemporary gender-adapted tale.

Read more ...

Rainbow Trail LGBTQIA+ exhibition queers RAMM for Exeter Pride 2019

Preview  /  Arts & culture

Rainbow Trail LGBTQIA+ exhibition queers RAMM for Exeter Pride 2019

A new collaboration between X-Plore Youth Devon, Exeter College LGBTQ+ society, Natalie McGrath of Dreadnought SW and Dr Jana Funke of the University of Exeter explores gender and sexual diversity across time, place and culture by reimagining objects from the RAMM collections.

Read more ...

Kaleider Mikrofest Our Dancing Shadows in Exeter Princesshay

Review  /  Arts & culture

Out of sight, out of mind

A performance of From The Light of The Fire, Our Dancing Shadows in Exeter for Kaleider Mikrofest appears to favour illusion over truth in a confused rendering of Plato's cave allegory that leaves both performers and audience in the dark.

Read more ...

Climate & Environment
Exeter Global Climate Strike demonstrator holding placard

Analysis  /  Climate & environment

Exeter youth climate strikers launch Green New Deal for Devon

Fridays For Future Exeter have published a detailed vision of a more equitable future that calls on elected representatives across the county to recognise the climate crisis as a symptom of a dysfunctional political economy.

Read more ...

Exeter Global Climate Strike Bedford Street crowd

News  /  Climate & environment

Thousands march in Exeter for global climate strike as millions mobilise worldwide

Fridays for Future Exeter led 3500 people on a climate crisis demonstration through the city backed by dozens of organisations on the eve of the UN Climate Action Summit in New York.

Read more ...

Exeter Extinction Rebellion funeral march climate crisis High Street

News  /  Climate & environment

Mock funeral march brings Exeter city centre to a sombre standstill

Extinction Rebellion campaigners brought the gravity of the ecological emergency home to Exeter on Saturday in a funereal procession commemorating wildlife loss caused by climate change.

Read more ...

Exeter Youth Strike 4 Climate protestors with banner

Opinion  /  Climate & environment

Exeter Youth Strike 4 Climate - the floodgates are open

Exeter is one of the smallest cities in Britain, yet it has produced some of the country's biggest youth strikes. Climate activist Sophie Sleeman recounts the story so far and explains what it means to the young people who are creating a global wave of change.

Read more ...

Extinction Rebellion climate emergency protesters in Exeter Guildhall shopping centre

News  /  Climate & environment

Exeter Extinction Rebellion stages climate emergency protest

Today around 70 people joined the Exeter branch of Extinction Rebellion on the city's streets to demand urgent action to minimise the risk of catastrophic impacts from climate change.

Read more ...

Planning & Place
Front elevations of proposed development at Mount Radford Lawn

Feature  /  Planning & place

Mount Radford Lawn development proposals conflict with St Leonards community vision

Exeter Deaf Academy hopes to sell a school playing field to developers who plan to build luxury homes. Local residents have other ideas about how best to use the land. A dispute is looming over an historic green space driven by prospective profit from planning gain.

Read more ...

Exeter Clifton Hill sports centre

Briefing  /  Planning & place

Clifton Hill sports centre – the background

Storm Emma met the Beast from the East and dumped a huge amount of snow on the roof of Exeter's Clifton Hill sports centre, setting off a chain reaction which has ignited two campaigns and put Exeter City Council's approaches to competence and openness into sharp focus.

Read more ...

Greater Exeter Strategic Plan banner

Briefing  /  Planning & place

Is the Greater Exeter Strategic Plan GESPing for air?

The Greater Exeter Strategic Plan has been a long time in gestation. When it finally arrives, will it deliver?

Read more ...

Exeter St James period housing stock

Opinion  /  Planning & place

Exeter St James regeneration

How can the supply of low-cost, incrementally investable city centre accommodation be stimulated to attract and retain creative, technically-skilled young entrepreneurial talent?

Read more ...

Strategy & Governance
East Devon Independent Claire Wright 2019 general election candidate

Feature  /  Strategy & governance

East Devon Independent Claire Wright set to unite Remain voters in close historic two-way contest

Claire Wright is poised to make history by beating the Tories in East Devon next week. If she does it will be without thanks to the LibDems and Greens, who insisted on standing candidates against her despite the preferences of local party members and the Unite to Remain campaign.

Read more ...

2019 Devon County Council Heavitree & Whipton Barton by-election Exeter vote share swing bar chart

News  /  Strategy & governance

Exeter Labour support collapses in Heavitree & Whipton Barton county by-election

Greg Sheldon wins Devon County Council division by just 40 votes after Labour loses nearly a fifth of its previous vote share.

Read more ...

Exeter City Council cuts executive decision-making scrutiny

News  /  Strategy & governance

Exeter City Council cuts scrutiny of executive decision-making

Constitutional changes proposed by Exeter City Council will make it more difficult to hold the ruling political group to account.

Read more ...

Exeter anti-government protest Devon for Europe speaker

Comment  /  Strategy & governance

Exeter protest misses its mark by mixing its messages

One of Exeter's biggest ever street demonstrations combined anti-Brexit and pro-democracy concerns to produce a confused protest against government policy.

Read more ...

Exeter City Council public toilet closures Exeter Live Better hoarding

Briefing  /  Strategy & governance

Exeter could do better - was there no alternative to closing so many public toilets?

Exeter City Council did not need to close thirteen public toilets to balance the books. The money to keep them open was available in reserves, but no mention of this option was made during public decision-making by councillors or officers.

Read more ...

Exeter City Council public toilet closure notice

Briefing  /  Strategy & governance

Caught short - balancing the books in a hurry

Exeter City Council has unapologetically confirmed its decision to close 13 public toilets as a money-saving measure with full knowledge of its expected effect on residents and visitors. Can we expect other spending cuts to be handled the same way?

Read more ...

Molly Scott Cato at the European Parliament

Interview  /  Strategy & governance

Is EU membership essential to our ability to deal with the climate emergency?

Molly Scott Cato, Green Party MEP for the South West, visited Exeter during her re-election campaign to explain why the EU and its Green Group is leading the way on a wide range of progressive policies.

Read more ...

Exeter City Council city centre wards map

News  /  Strategy & governance

Exeter Labour loses local elections in all three city centre wards

Voters in Exeter yesterday elected three new councillors to represent them in the key wards that cover the city centre, with all the city's ruling Exeter Labour group candidates missing out despite the party's confident campaign.

Read more ...

Jemima Moore campaigning in Exeter local elections

Profile  /  Strategy & governance

Local resident stands as independent candidate in Exeter elections

Jemima Moore is a 36 year-old part-time primary school teacher and mother of two young children with little political experience. So why has she decided to stand for election to Exeter City Council on 2 May?

Read more ...

Exeter City Council press and public exclusion notice

Analysis  /  Strategy & governance

What does your council know that you don't know you don't know?

Extracting information from councils is hard work but increasingly necessary for local democracy.

Read more ...

Transport & Mobility
Country Bus G service to Exeter Quay

Feature  /  Transport & mobility

An integrated public transport service for Devon remains a distant aspiration

A change to Exeter's G bus service operator has revealed the limits of Devon County Council's approach to transport system integration.

Read more ...

Dutch living streets woonerf sign

Longread  /  Transport & mobility

We already know what to do about the climate crisis. We must get on with doing it as fast as we can.

Exeter and Devon council leaders must begin rapid regional decarbonisation now. The quickest, cheapest way to cut emissions in Exeter is to deter combustion engines from entering the city. Clean air legislation offers a basis for action.

Read more ...

Historic Exe Bridge traffic

Opinion  /  Transport & mobility

Streets are for people, not cars

Cars adversely affect economic output, air quality and wellbeing, take up valuable space when parked and discourage people from walking and cycling when driven. Reducing their use would enhance Exeter's retail and leisure offer, improve public health and attract needed workers to the city.

Read more ...

More stories
Photo of The Jambassadors by Gabe Riedlinger

Preview  /  Arts & culture

Jambassadors feature in pop-up Jazz Toast at Barnfield Theatre

Musical director Roz Harding invites us to join an Exeter College Music Academy student collective in a one-night-only experimental exploration of in-the-moment improvisation.

Read more ...

Exeter College students in A Midsummer Night's Dream at Barnfield Theatre

Review  /  Arts & culture

Playing with gender expectations at Barnfield Theatre

An Exeter College interpretation of A Midsummer Night's Dream transforms it into an enchanting contemporary gender-adapted tale.

Read more ...

Exeter City Council city centre wards map

News  /  Strategy & governance

Exeter Labour loses local elections in all three city centre wards

Voters in Exeter yesterday elected three new councillors to represent them in the key wards that cover the city centre, with all the city's ruling Exeter Labour group candidates missing out despite the party's confident campaign.

Read more ...

Jemima Moore campaigning in Exeter local elections

Profile  /  Strategy & governance

Local resident stands as independent candidate in Exeter elections

Jemima Moore is a 36 year-old part-time primary school teacher and mother of two young children with little political experience. So why has she decided to stand for election to Exeter City Council on 2 May?

Read more ...

Exeter Clifton Hill sports centre

Briefing  /  Planning & place

Clifton Hill sports centre – the background

Storm Emma met the Beast from the East and dumped a huge amount of snow on the roof of Exeter's Clifton Hill sports centre, setting off a chain reaction which has ignited two campaigns and put Exeter City Council's approaches to competence and openness into sharp focus.

Read more ...

Exeter City Council press and public exclusion notice

Analysis  /  Strategy & governance

What does your council know that you don't know you don't know?

Extracting information from councils is hard work but increasingly necessary for local democracy.

Read more ...

Greater Exeter Strategic Plan banner

Briefing  /  Planning & place

Is the Greater Exeter Strategic Plan GESPing for air?

The Greater Exeter Strategic Plan has been a long time in gestation. When it finally arrives, will it deliver?

Read more ...

Extinction Rebellion climate emergency protesters in Exeter Guildhall shopping centre

News  /  Climate & environment

Exeter Extinction Rebellion stages climate emergency protest

Today around 70 people joined the Exeter branch of Extinction Rebellion on the city's streets to demand urgent action to minimise the risk of catastrophic impacts from climate change.

Read more ...

Kaleider Mikrofest Our Dancing Shadows in Exeter Princesshay

Review  /  Arts & culture

Out of sight, out of mind

A performance of From The Light of The Fire, Our Dancing Shadows in Exeter for Kaleider Mikrofest appears to favour illusion over truth in a confused rendering of Plato's cave allegory that leaves both performers and audience in the dark.

Read more ...

Exeter St James period housing stock

Opinion  /  Planning & place

Exeter St James regeneration

How can the supply of low-cost, incrementally investable city centre accommodation be stimulated to attract and retain creative, technically-skilled young entrepreneurial talent?

Read more ...

Historic Exe Bridge traffic

Opinion  /  Transport & mobility

Streets are for people, not cars

Cars adversely affect economic output, air quality and wellbeing, take up valuable space when parked and discourage people from walking and cycling when driven. Reducing their use would enhance Exeter's retail and leisure offer, improve public health and attract needed workers to the city.

Read more ...

More galleries