Last weekend Jo Verrent, senior producer for Unlimited, was at the soft launch of Blackpool’s Art B&B – a new hotel with its origins in LeftCoast, the Creative People and Places scheme for the region. The boutique hotel is an independent CIC (Community Interest Company), designed to take the profit from operating as a commercial business and draw it back into community based arts activity and development. So what did she find?
The hotel is beautiful, it has 19 incredible rooms each individually designed and in many the concept goes well beyond a piece of art on the walls. For example, A Comfortable Room, conceived by Lisa Mattocks and Jenny Gaskell, which has an electric bed, electric curtains and full wall screen with a choice of bespoke artist’s films inspired by conversations with local residents who experience chronic pain. In Kristina Veasey’s room, based on her Unlimited Commission My Dirty Secret, there are prints and fabrics made from images from dust and detritus found around her home.
I was invited as we had co-commissioned a room with the hotel and also co-bought a piece of art for the common area – a stunning neon work by Romily Alice Walden, Remedial Geologies IV.
But back to the room we co-commissioned and the room I had the privilege of being the first person to ever sleep in, or not sleep in. Designed by Christopher Samuel, the Welcome Inn is based on his continued experience of exclusion; of rooms that just don’t quite work for him in relation to access. Those rooms where a wheelchair can’t quite fit around the bed or into the toilet space so you can’t close the door. Where you can’t reach the plugs. Where the light switch for the bedside lights isn’t by the bedside making it awkward and difficult to locate – and then you have to find your way back under the covers in the dark.
The room is a triumph of inaccessibility, a true illustrator of the social model in practice. When you enter, you first notice the bed… which has a lip 88 centimetres high around it that you have to physically climb over to get in and to climb over again every time you need to get out. Every time. Like in the middle of the night when you need a wee and you really don’t want to have to think about how you are going to navigate a space in order to carry out such a basic function.
I don’t want to give away the room’s many secrets but literally everything you try and do has you thwarted in some manner. Want to sit at the desk? Nope. Want to shower in privacy? Nope. Want to watch TV? Nope – that’s facing a wall – actually, you can watch it; through the mirror; so the captions are all reversed. And the room keeps giving. One of the best reveals for me happened late at night when I’d finally made it into bed (cunningly using the stool to create a step up for myself) but I just can’t tell you what it is! It however made me laugh out loud and both curse and congratulate the artist simultaneously!
I was staying in the room with my husband, Tim Wheeler:
“One night in an inaccessible room is hilarious, two nights becomes slightly less hilarious and more frustrating. A whole lifetime of inaccessible rooms becomes understood at a whole new level.”
We are both disabled people and have worked with disabled artists all our lives. Yet there is nothing that compares to an immersive experience to make you rethink what you think you know and develop a much more empathetic understanding, not just of access barriers, but what it feels like to continually experience them. Literally everything you want to do in this room requires an additional layer of thought and planning. It means there is a lack of ability to just ‘run on as usual’ so your habits are broken, making even simple things tiring, draining spontaneity.
I asked Christopher what his intention was:
“I wanted to challenge the idea that when it comes to access, one size fits all and to create a conversation around accessibility. It was about designing a space that needs to be experienced to be understood, a slightly theatrical space, one that targets non-disabled people, but not maliciously! In making the room I felt empowered, proud – and just a bit naughty.”
It’s also amazing how quickly you adapt to inaccessibility and forego things that are there for others and not there for you, becoming grateful for the basics – a comfortable bed (once you climb in) and clean, crisp sheets. Is this really the best that disabled people should expect from our service industry? You start to gain a whole new perspective, and for me, a whole new anger at our complacency with access: our ‘it’ll do’ attitude.
Want to stay in this or any of the stunning 19 rooms that the hotel provides, each created by an artist, a collaboration or a collective? Follow Art B&B on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to find out when everything opens officially. It’s a unique experience and, if you pick Christopher’s room to stay in, one that will change your views on access for good.