Text for ReMote, Bloc Publishing 2004

tenantspin – simple complexity

On the morning of Monday 13th January 2003, the tenantspin Superchannel held a meeting in its studio on the second floor of the Cunard Building on Liverpool’s waterfront. It was both an occasion to catch up after Christmas and a chance to continue preparation for the studio’s move to the FACT Centre[1]. Despite five apologies, ten other tenants took part in the meeting. Five men. Five women. Aged 49 to 84. Two tenants were attending a tenantspin meeting for the very first time and six in attendance had been involved with the first ever tenantspin webcast in 2000.

The tenantspin Superchannel has been hugely successful and gained respect from many artistic and social agencies. In is first two years the project webcast 158 live shows on subjects as diverse as E-Democracy, green homes, Elvis, tenants’ rights, anti-social behaviour, Bill Drummond, the Zappatistas and demolitions. It has involved members of the community over a lengthy period of time and consistently unearthed and drawn in new participants. It has collaborated with major cultural figures and created some extraordinary opportunities for participants.

Slowly evolving out of the first experimental Superchannel commission in 1999, the tenantspin experience does however ask numerous critical questions on the manners in which an arts agency, a community and a Government body can collaborate and the boundaries of contemporary UK streaming. In 1999 Danish artists group Superflex[2] along with programmer Sean Treadway introduced the Superchannel project to the UK. Initially a six-month experimental commission by the FACT to work with elderly tenants living in Liverpool’s oldest tower block, the Superchannel live interactive webcasting system would be an attempt at creating new dialogues and rejuvenating community activism.

It is important to understand the full social context of tenantspin and the Superchannel in Liverpool. The ground-breaking UK Superchannel was housed in a modest community flat (sharing with a hairdressers salon and Tenants’ Association office) in the Coronation Court tower block. Built in the mid-fifties, the ten-storey block stood eight miles from Liverpool city centre and in 1999 around half of its community was aged over 70. It was proposed that the Superchannel, as an unmediated channel for community generated content that combined streaming technology with a simultaneous chat function, could become a means for the isolated Coronation Court tenants to create new networks and explore the possibilities of a new electronic democracy.

Using the RealProducer software, audio and video signals from a video camera are encoded, sent to a server in Copenhagen and then streamed out over the Internet. Upon visiting www.superchannel.org during a live show, viewers follow a smallish picture (depending on Internet connection) on the left-hand side of the screen. On the right, viewers are invited to log into a chat room to type comments that are fed directly to the live studio, thus creating the opportunity to influence and more actively participate in what one is watching.

Superflex's practice as artists takes them around the world setting up new ventures. Reality deems that artists traditionally move on after initiation of projects but crucial to the sustainability of the Superchannel project in Liverpool has been the continuing dialogue with Sueprflex (they come over to see the tenants around twice a year) but also FACT’s commitment to bringing new artists into the project to work with tenants at keeping it relevant and fresh.

Six years earlier Coronation Court had been one of 67 high-rise properties taken over for redevelopment and regeneration by Government agency Liverpool Housing Action Trust (HAT). With a remit to improve tenant participation in democratic decision-making processes, HAT warmly embraced FACT’s proposal to experiment with the Superchannel system. A studio was established in Coronation Court with an encoding PC, digital video camera, VCR, mixing desk and microphones. Superflex came and met with the tenants and FACT appointed a part-time facilitator to develop awareness and understanding of the technologies involved.

There was an initial excitement over the new technology (and “the fact that these young artists from Denmark were interested in us”) for a group of people who had no previous access to or awareness of such possibilities. Yet as with many such ventures, it was left to a few to actually carry the baton for a supposed new democratic tool. Interactive TV researcher Stuart Nolan makes the interesting point that “you can throw as much technology as you want at a community but if they do not have an existing context of communication and participation in democracy they will not participate electronically[3]”. The ageing population perhaps understood the relevance of the new Superchannel but when they did contribute to decisions affecting their future it was through the long established culture of voting for a representative (“someone more confident, more articulate”) to attend lengthy centralised meetings in their place. 


Coronation Court webcast frequently but irregularly. Thirty-eight shows were produced in total with the content ranging from the building itself, including an interview with the original architect, to a series of one-to-one interviews with tenants about their lives. It was then announced that the proposed major refurbishment of Coronation Court, with award-winning designs from Rotterdam-based Biq Architects, would not be happening after all and the building was to be demolished. This announcement should have been the catalyst that drew people to the Superchannel as a means of communal demonstration, communication or at the very least a challenging of the decision. Instead it knocked the wind out of even the most active of activists.

The emotional legacy of the Coronation Court turnaround continues today and the decision taken at the time, based on the enthusiasm of a few who could still see the Superchannel’s potential, was to pack up the pieces, retreat and devise a new, more solid tack.

It is from this context that the tenantspin Superchannel emerged. It would base itself on a wider support network and strive to see the larger city-wide picture. It would be managed and overseen by The High Rise Tenants Group (HRTG) – the group of around 40 people, two representatives from each geographical grouping of tower blocks, annually elected by the wider high-rise population.

tenantspin would thus encompass 67 tower blocks with a population of around 2,500 (of whom around 70% were over 60) – isolated communities facing either demolitions or refurbishments. Post-Coronation Court, it would respect and work with the established methods of contributing to decisions but try to introduce streaming technology into those processes, rather than vice versa. Crucially, it would also look forwards rather than backwards. The content would not be nostalgic – the channel would enable individuals’ contributions to tomorrow’s situations to be heard. FACT would continue working with the tenants, commissioning artists and writers to find fresh avenues of discourse and participation. After four months of test broadcasts in a new studio in the Cunard Building, tenantspin was officially launched in March 2001.

Almost two years on, has tenantspin prevented further Coronation Court scenarios? Directly – no. Indirectly – perhaps. By encompassing 67 rather than 1 tower block, the possibilities of affecting direct change had in fact reduced. The sheer amount of information and delicate consultation involved for each site was at times far too much for the HRTG meeting room, let alone weekly one-hour webcasts. If affecting real political decisions is the sole basis on which tenantspin is judged, then it has been a failed experiment. At least so far. 

At a February 2003 Steering Group meeting, the main agenda item is the creation of a new part-time post to further focus and develop the channel’s political and social aspirations. Amongst some tenants, the possibility of affecting real change remains. They may speak of bad timing – no HAT blocks have ADSL and Liverpool as a city awaits good quality and affordable broadband. Or they may point out the fact that the only reason the tenantspin studio was housed in the Cunard Building was that the same building housed the HAT administration headquarters just along the corridor. To some tenants, this sent out the wrong signals about a project that would potentially challenge HAT decisions.

The project hopes that the new post and a home in the more ‘neutral’ FACT Centre will further increase the opportunities for tenantspin to become a true, respected and listened-to channel for those needing to speak. The work of course will lie as much with those that need to listen as with those that have more to say than they realise. The continued energy and belief in the Superchannel system (and its original aims in Liverpool) amongst tenants stems not from the channel’s failed political agenda but in its extraordinary development of more basic human needs.

tenantspin has worked hard at engaging and involving a wider audience.  Its editorial policy alternates between social housing issues – such as monthly HRTG updates - and the creative programme. In 2002, around 200 tenants were involved in researching, presenting and producing shows. Participants have gained a new confidence from delivering weekly live shows and being invited abroad to offer inspiration to other community groups.

As one tenant commented, “the next time that person has to talk to a landlord, architect or politician, they have that added experience and confidence from doing live tenantspin shows.” The project has seen great changes in some of the participants. Amongst the current group, there are not two people who knew each other prior to involvement in the project – they come from all parts of the city. A tenant once said to me “the fear of isolation is far greater than any fear of technology”. These people are not necessarily HRTG reps but have created a new citywide tenant grouping. tenantspin is not eradicating isolation but slowly eating into it. Beyond the 200 tenants directly involved last year, a further eighty responded creatively to a questionnaire sent out as part of the SuperBlock Radio 3 commission. From this group, a few have since joined the core production teams.

Key to this approach is communication and collaboration. Given its target constituency, tenantspin cannot be touted solely as a cutting-edge webcasting channel that combines streaming technology with a simultaneous chat function. Fear of technology. The challenge is to describe its potential in a language that attracts those that have something to offer on more human levels.

And that language and process of communication is not only grammatical but economic and inclusive. The BBC questionnaire crucially arrived through letterboxes with pre-paid return envelopes. Travel expenses are paid to all tenants attending meetings or live shows. This greatly encourages participation. When searching for a tenant to meet Nick Richmond, the Sean Connery lookalike, it later transpired that the tenant who interviewed Nick live on tenantspin had not left her flat before that day for almost two years.

Linguistically, FACT has also experimented with quizzes rather than questionnaires as means of evaluating progress amongst tenants learning the streaming process. The publication of The Chat Files in 2002 – edited excerpts from the weekly online chat during tenantspin – illustrates the project’s potential as potently as previous verbal attempts at explaining what a chatroom could or can be used for. Where possible, all documents relating to tenantspin are produced at 13pt size.

 Which brings us onto the arts agency’s particular role in tenantspin. While the social housing agencies also attempt to create new networks, offer travel expenses and take great care in their use of language, it tends to be the existing activists that are worked with, those that enjoy attending numerous boardroom meetings. The decision-makers find the activists. The creative programme, a series of respectful collaborations between tenants and artists, has begun to seriously challenge and reverse this process. The point hits home on those occasions when the project is approached by a tenant who is interested in one of the shows and later reveals that they had no inclination that their home was part of a bigger Government regeneration programme. Some of these people have since become politically aware and actively involved in their local situation.

The creative strands, managed by FACT’s Collaboration Programme, investigate basic human conditions. It is ‘aspirational’ in that it consistently challenges tenants to push themselves.

A CD project involved around 15 tenants, ten of whom had no previous engagement with FACT or HAT, and six of whom are still actively involved with tenantspin. New tenants were found to interview Bill Drummond and to travel to New York as part of ‘Open_Source_Art_Hack’ at NMCA on Broadway and to Wiesbaden for the ’40 Years Of Fluxus’ exhibition. Participation based on musical talent, a curiosity about contemporary art or an interest in meeting groups from other locations. Five tenants worked with Brookside scriptwriter Maurice Bessman on a one-hour webcast as part of the Writing on the Wall Festival, developing a 20-minute drama about lifts. Two tenants worked with artists Phil Collins and Luchezar Boyadjiev during the Crossing Over Micro Film Festival on short films dealing with immigration and hobbies. Tenants also interviewed and were interviewed by Will Self, Margi Clarke, Ricardo Dominguez of the Electronic Disturbance Theatre and curator Rene Block.


Manchester-based artist Graham Parker developed an extraordinary show with three tenants, a hand-held GPS machine, mobiles, co-ordinated taxis, Sefton Park, hands-free telephone, two tales from opposite ends of the city and an A-Z. Amsterdam-based Otto Berchem is currently developing a webcast that links the channel to the BBC’s Kilroy Show in an investigation of presentation skills, The Frequency Clock project approached tenantspin regarding a joint venture to re-animate the 158-show archive in a series of late-night rebroadcasts and Alfons Schilling, one of the earliest pioneers of creative uses of technology, visited recently to discuss possible future collaborations around issues of visual perception and sight.

Another unexpected development of these commissions has been the nurturing of the existing activists as well as new participants. Particularly SuperBlock, an 80-minute audio work with Liverpool writer Jeff Young commissioned by BBC Radio 3, yielded some powerful creative input from four highly active HRTG reps. Deliberately set in the year 2040 when all the demolished towers are rebuilt on top of each other, SuperBlock demanded a whole new thinking process when reflecting on high-rise living.

tenantspin operates on quality rather than quantity. When approached by major cable and satellite companies offering to “buy the content and roll it out to millions” the project has consistently declined. Its political agenda may yet to be fulfilled but tenantspin is aware of its weaknesses. It doesn’t count the inability to reach thousands or millions as a fault.

The TVmeetstheWeb seminar[4] proposed that the future of interactive TV lies in gambling and quiz shows. That is, a form of button-pressing passive interaction. Tenantspin strives for a more active interaction and believes that such a relationship can only evolve over time. There have been numerous streaming projects in the UK that have been short-lived and of the 29 current Superchannels across the globe, only 8 are still broadcasting. The BBC’s recent ‘Great Britain’ debate, acclaimed as an innovative Interactive media event, enticed 1.5 million people to vote. The average duration of interaction was at the most minutes.

tenantspin believes that, given time, people can develop more meaningful relationships with other people and new ideas. Its live audiences are closer to 30 than 1,500,000. Its participants are drawn in for their personal qualities and gradually become aware of potential relationships between the processes behind creativity and local politics. The interaction is sometimes messy, sometimes thrilling and occasionally difficult. But it is long-term and human.

And it is in this approach that the disparate objectives of a Government body, a cutting edge arts agency and a community can/have come together to create something that has sustainability and integrity.




[1] FACT, Foundation for Art & Creative Technology, is a Liverpool-based agency founded in 1988 to promote, support and develop moving image based projects

[2] Jacob Fenger, Bjornstjerne Christiansen and Rasmus Nielsen

[3] presentation at “England’s Streaming” conference, Liverpool, 2002

[4] Amsterdam, 2002