We talk to the Weather Café artist about his upcoming project, Incredible Things
Diligent frequenters of Leeds' coffee scene will be well acquainted with the Weather Café. Bringing the weather inside for the spring of 2016, guests donned headphones as they sipped their tea, listening to the voices of over 100 people living in Leeds share their stories, taking a moment of peace within the calming nature of wind, rain and fog. It was there, and then it was gone, vanishing into the mist and leaving behind it a series of questions: was it really a coffee shop at all, or something more?
David Shearing was the brains behind the project, and a man well versed in bringing the unusual into the everyday. A London-born immersive artist who has spent the last eight years living and working in Leeds, his installations look to bridge the gap between fine art and performance, often exposing those who have no experience of art to something they view regularly and even take for granted; for example, the humble coffee shop.
“As an artist I’m always interested in turning things upside down and inside out – bringing the weather indoors, making magic without reason,” he says. “The Weather Café for me was just a sort of intervention; it was advertised as a new café opening, so lots of people didn’t realise it was an artwork.
"I kind of liked that threshold between art and life. It started our work towards building compassion with other people, trying to understand people we don’t know – like when you’re sat next to somebody in a café but you don’t know their story. I wanted to reveal people's stories, and I think a lot of people found it to be quite a release.”
This year - driven by the desire to foster more inclusion in a world increasingly divided by politics, fast-paced lifestyles and social-media-fuelled narcissism - David and his team have gone one step bigger. Widening their net across Leeds as a whole, they came up with Incredible Things – a project that aims to create 100 happenings across Leeds that feed into his three key words: wild, beautiful and magical.
“The idea first emerged in 2014. Often ideas for projects take a bit of time to come together and find partners and reshape contingencies but, in essence, I think it was inspired by two things – the experience of doing the café and Brexit," he explains. “I think after Brexit it was acknowledging that there were two very clear lines and people do think differently, perhaps we’re not as shared and as crossed over as we like to think we are, but there are ways we can challenge that.
“And so we came up with the idea to create 100 incredible happenings across the city. It might be next year, it might be a little longer term, but what we wanted to do was to start mapping out what they could be, talking to people to ask ‘if you could do something that was wild, beautiful and magical, what would you do and who would you do it for?’ And that’s how we built our manifesto.”
'If you could do something that was wild, beautiful and magical, what would you do and who would you do it for?'
The manifesto that hangs upon the wall in the team’s collaborative space on Vicar Lane is an admirable one – invested in free access, creating new perspectives of the city and fostering community spirit, it forms the guidelines that are shaping the project in its current research and development phase, taking place right across Leeds and its suburbs.
“We’re now doing ten workshops across the city, working with different groups – we’ll inhabit a space and people will come and talk to us about what they think makes an incredible thing, and also about who is marginalised in our society – who do you not get to speak to on a daily basis?”
“Some things we’re not spending any money on; others maybe £200. One of the groups we worked with the other day, some kids in Skipton, they suggested giving everybody a limo for the day. So one of the ideas we’re looking into at the moment is replacing one of the bus services for the day – you can go round on a big number 5 bus loop and have your ticket but it’ll be a limo instead of a bus. It’s an unusual space but it might bring unlikely people together, it’s a talking point – maybe you’re sat in the back and you get chatting to someone. Some of them I don’t know what will happen yet – some involve the whole city, parks, dinners, rooftops, basements…it’s shaping up to be fairly big.”
The element of possibility in David’s voice is infectious – as Leeds gears up for its 2023 City of Culture bid, he hopes that the project will help foster a ‘pay-it-forward’ spirit. Currently operating as a team of ten, he encourages individuals who are interested to sign up and be involved as the project grows, with the view that it can be carried forward indefinitely.
“Things can be magical because they happen and then disappear, but also we want to give people the agency to do it for themselves.” He says. “One of the things we’re looking into at the moment is turning the website into an archive of things people have done, so it can become part of a larger movement; this idea of incredible can be owned by everyone.”
“Leeds has the will and the diversity that I think is something to really celebrate – it’s a big city and a powerful one. My ultimate hope is that people like the idea enough to go forth and do something, big or small – cooking dinner for your neighbour, opening your rooftop to somebody. We need more kindness, and we need more magic. Why can’t we transform our day to day?”
Incredible Things is generously supported by Arts Council England, Leeds 2023 and East Street Arts. To learn more about future project roles and volunteer opportunities, sign up to the mailing list