Blog: Katie Etheridge and Simon Persighetti

The artist and performance producers on becoming publicans

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July 2021 and we’re in Kirkgate Market in Leeds, putting the finishing touches to Public House – The Yorkshire Square. It’s the culmination of four years work with Compass Live Art, shining a spotlight on the relationships between pubs, people and places. A multifaceted art installation that also serves as a fully functioning pop-up pub, the Yorkshire Square investigates the enduring role of the pub as a social hub.

We adopted the dimensions of the Yorkshire Square as a way of containing, exhibiting and sharing varied views of the power of public houses and other social spaces. Indeed, it was at a Social Club in Leeds where we met a group of former Tetley’s Brewery workers who told us about the vast fermenting vessel of that name.

Losing our own local pub in 2017 provided a big wakeup call. In the weeks and months that followed it began to feel as if the nucleus of the town had been removed, and people were lost or disconnected. Without the informal face-to-face social space provided by the pub, news travelled more slowly. We missed the live bands, the pub cats, the annual panto, but most of all we missed the people. It was always about the people. We started organising reunions, hiring a hall, getting some local beer in, with Rob, the former landlord, behind the bar. We were 80 people having a party on a Friday night in a church hall, connected only through having frequented the same pub.

The subject of loss is featured in one of the four faces of the square the Duchess and is a homage to the famous Vicar Lane pub and much missed live music venue. It was the runaway winner of Compass’s Lost Pub competition. The venue closed in 2000 and the hollowed-out building is now a clothes shop. This side explores how pub closures affect culture and community.

As one of the sectors hardest hit by Covid, the way pubs operate has been turned upside down. Pubs are about social proximity, not social distance. Who thought it would ever be illegal to sit on a bar stool and have a chat? Early on in the project we showed participants a 1960s Tomorrow’s World episode featuring the first “computer pub” in Hackney Wick, where customers order drinks via telephones installed on each table. We asked people: “If you could walk into a pub in 50 years time, what would you like to see? What has changed, what has stayed the same?”

But the pandemic has changed our perception of time. Pubs do change over time of course, but the timeless ones seem to change almost imperceptibly, giving the comforting illusion that in a fast changing and unstable world, they are the one place in our lives that doesn’t change, that will always be there for us. Until one day, they’re not.

The Time Bar face of the installation features specially recorded interviews on pubs past, present and future with pub goers encouraged to add their views to the brew with the Yorkshire Square’s interactive pub quiz machine. Quiz answers are recorded on the spot and screened amidst a chorus of pre-recorded voices of Leeds brewers, publicans and pub punters.

During the last year the value of real-life social spaces has been pulled into sharp focus. Many people have missed what is sometimes termed their third place. It’s the place where you feel most comfortable outside home or work or day-to-day life, where informal face-to-face social contact happens alongside whatever activity or purpose has brought you there. For many, their third place is a different kind of space to the pub: an allotment, café, community group, gym, place of worship, choir, book shop, sports club, art space and library can all be third places. Digital stories in the Yorkshire Square explore a range of third places and what they mean to individuals.

Each side of the square provides different approaches and questions about pubs. Though to some extent it’s a platform for people’s memories, it’s not about nostalgia – it’s about re-valuing places and people that perhaps we took for granted before the pandemic. In our earlier research for this project we met the late and much respected beer writer Richard Coldwell, who used the term “chameleon bar” to describe a pub that “offers different things to different people at different times of the day”. And it is at this chameleon bar that we have programmed a series of tap talks, dispensing a range of ideas, questions and challenges about pubs as much as a range of local beers. We hope the Yorkshire Square will express the idea that the pub of the future has many faces.

It’s also about recognising that what we do today becomes tomorrow’s heritage. A common slogan used about pub survival is “use it or lose it” and we suggest every pub should display a blue plaque that declares: “In this pub, you make history, one sip at a time.”

For more information on Public House: The Yorkshire Square visit Etheridge and Persighetti’s Small Acts at or Tap talk and tours and the installation itself are free

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