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Public property

Lucy Musgrave and Clare Cumberlidge have joined forces to create a new, not-for-profit agency to explore and improve what we call the public realm Lucy Musgrave and Clare Cumberlidge chose May Day to set up their curious hybrid of a company, General Public Agency (GPA).

The date was fitting - the not-for-profit 'creative consultancy' the pair have launched from offices near London's Borough Market (shared with Cumberlidge's partner, Ben Kelly) is all about public space.

'It's dedicated to the public realm, ' says Musgrave. 'There are a whole range of different sectors and disciplines that are interested in the public realm but are not looking at it as a new form of practice. It is really trying to pull together social architecture, planning and issues of community engagement, artistic practice and citizenship, and to recognise it as a field of practice that demands a different response. That's the big objective.'

It also aims to raise the debate about what the public realm can be, says Cumberlidge, to take it from perceptions of the spatial into areas like the virtual world and rural environments.

Cumberlidge, described as 'unpretentious' and 'no nonsense', has been an independent artistic curator for the past 15 years. She first worked with Musgrave when the latter was in charge of the Architecture Foundation, having already devised a unique programme at the Science Museum, committing it to commissioning contemporary artists on developments. She was artistic director of Holly Street Public Art programme in Hackney, east London, another major commissioning programme which looked at issues of social inclusion. The two came together when Cumberlidge was running 2000-2001's 'Year of the Artist'.

Then Musgrave (who is, incidentally, Lord Rogers' daughter-in-law) asked Cumberlidge to come to the Foundation to help write a programme for an artist-led cultural strategy for the Greater London Authority. It went unrealised - for cash reasons, they point out - but the pair were to work again on training youngsters to be 'fully informed clients' and on celebrating a decade of the Foundation.

'I asked Clare to curate the 10th anniversary bar in Bury Street, ' says Musgrave.

Cumberlidge adds: 'When you asked me, it was going to be an exhibition, wasn't it? We turned it into a bar on the basis that that's where you get the best ideas.'

This was 'Calling London' - artists, architects, town planners et al looking to events based on the city's future in what Cumberlidge calls a 'forward-looking, creative, blue-skies experience. 'It was fantastic' she says. 'We had a really incredible response, and one of the main themes that came out of that was the idea of play.'

Those ideas mutated into similar work for Robert Mull at the school of architecture at what was the University of North London (now London Metropolitan University) and a teaching project on 'Twenty-first Century Pleasure Gardens.' And from that, only last November, the duo decided to set up GPA.

So what's been the inspiration? Is there something lacking? A void they're trying to fill? Regeneration practice in Britain is, they feel, deficient in culture and creativity. GPA is a 'direct challenge' to those 'narrow' practices, with an alternative vision and platform for discussion and action. 'The conservative and conventional nature of the majority of British regeneration should be challenged, ' they say.

So, they will start with a series of artists' residencies, placing artists non-prescriptively in rural or virtual spheres, perhaps looking at things like intellectual property rights. This last, they believe, is an issue with major implications that have not yet been communicated to anyone outside the digital community. 'So one of our ambitions is to place an artist in a legal firm specialising in that issue, or an academic department investigating public domain and the internet', says Cumberlidge.

The aim: to produce a piece of work exploring the issue with a view to communicating it to a wider, non-techie public. 'It has to be someone with an enlightened approach but who is able to communicate to the non-techie, ' she adds. 'That's quite a rare combination.'

The residencies sound intriguing. 'They'll be critical and hopefully surprising matches between practitioners and hosts, ' says Musgrave, and will be funded by a grant from the Arts Council.

The first will be by Nils Norman, perhaps most famous for his 2001 work Geocruiser - a mobile library/greenhouse powered by diesel and vegetable oil - and will look at gap sites in two London boroughs. Norman will then make a comic to be inserted into a trade magazine to provoke the debate still further.

Another idea is with designer Mayumi Sakai, who has developed a design for an urban farm park. The pair explain that this will be 'an intergenerational city farm'. That is, a brownfield site which elderly people can use as allotments, from which to sell their produce. The twist is that it will be powered by energy from children's play equipment - swings and roundabouts. This, assures Musgrave, is possible, and encapsulates many of their ideas in a 'fresh, progressive, fun way'.

And then there is Public Image, the ongoing public archive GPA has just launched: a collection of free-of-copyright images of what architects, planners, developers, their friends - anyone - think sums up the public realm. It is at www. generalpublicagency. com.

'We're trying to stimulate creative responses to the issues of public realm and the public sphere, ' says Cumberlidge. 'I feel it's about trying to create new thought, really.'

Their venture is also about trying to create an international network of artists and others, sometimes giving them work through open submissions, in order that failures they perceive in the regenerational process will diminish. 'There's a lot of conventional practice that doesn't dig too deep, ' says Musgrave.

'Things can be quite conservative in terms of inspiration, its practice, and therefore its endproduct we want to build a network and a dialogue of different practitioners.'

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