Debut exhibition marks a milestone for Sheffield’s creative co-op

Andrea Burns at The Roco
Andrea Burns at The Roco
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Andrea Burns is preparing for an exhibition launch in 48 hours - but there’s a snag.

One of the key exhibits - a $90,000 hi-tech robotic hand - has been impounded by customs at Stansted Airport and only released following careful negotiation.

There are rules around importing medical devices but, as Andrea points out, the item is intended to be displayed at an art show at her Sheffield ‘creative co-op’, The Roco, and not used as a limb on this occasion.

“You’re not really going to sell it on eBay, are you,” she adds with a smile, but the incident sheds light on the work involved in putting together The Body Electric, the first exhibition at Roco’s BL_NK SPACE gallery.

And Andrea’s no stranger to putting in long hours generally. She and her business partner, property developer Chris Hill, have realised a £1.2 million vision of opening studios for creative endeavours, a co-working space, café, rooftop bar, gallery and shops in a row of seven Grade II listed terraced houses on Glossop Road, near Sheffield University’s students’ union.

There’s more to come, too. All 11 of the existing studios are occupied, but another 30 are on the way shortly, and Roco is expanding across the street by renovating a large former university building that harbours a ‘maker’s shed’ in the back yard, complete with laser cutting equipment, a kiln and CAD design machines.

“It’s a phased project, and it’s huge,” says Andrea, who refers to the social enterprise as a ‘community’.

“There’s 100 of us - 25 tenants, 15 members of staff, and 70 shareholding members. Phase two gives us another 100 people on site so it’s going to change the dynamic quite a lot, which is pretty exciting.

“It’s going to be exceptionally busy.”

In total, £120,000 has been raised for the next stage from supporters the Key Fund, Co-op Community Finance and Big Issue Invest, with £20,000 collected through a share offer.

The studios are home to a ‘broad mix’, Andrea continues.

“We have architects, product designers, fashion designers, a branding agency, and a couple of games designers. And there have been some really interesting projects. This was set up to support the creative industries, and one of the things I’m interested in is how we use creativity for social good.

“We’ve got this abundance of talent, but what do we do with it?”

Andrea points from the café up to the window of architect Paul Testa’s studio, where he works on the ‘passivhaus’ concept - homes that don’t consume any energy.

“That’s a perfect example of how design is solving a problem.”

Ground rules were laid down to govern who could rent studios.

“There is a distinction between creative industries and the arts sector. Creative industries are businesses that absolutely have to generate their own income. That’s our niche.”

The aim is for Roco to offer an end-to-end solution - workspaces, equipment for making and a ‘route to market’ in the shop. A deal is also being lined up with Sheffield Hallam University on a scheme to offer studios to design students as a ‘stepping stone’ to life post-graduation.

“It’s a great partnership, because they’re our future tenants,” enthuses Andrea.

She says The Body Electric ‘feels like a real milestone’. The last commission to be funded by Sheffield’s Year of Making festival, the exhibition explores how people design and engineer their own bodies - from false limbs to novel reflections on what it means to be human.

So the robotic hand - a ‘myoelectric hand’, to give it its proper definition - comes from the Engineering at Home archive, a collection that documents the story of a woman who suffered medical complications after a heart attack, underwent amputations and needed many adaptations, including some creative problem-solving on her own part, in order to make a new life for herself.

Also on show will be the Mi:Mu glove, created by singer-songwriter Imogen Heap, that turns the arms and hands of performers into musical instruments.

A programme of talks and workshops is being lined up, including an appearance by ‘goat man’ Thomas Thwaites, who designed an exoskeleton to try living as a four-legged beast ‘to escape the angst inherent in being a human’.

“If we can deliver something like The Body Electric off our own bat, then it shows we can deliver good value for money,” says Andrea, who stresses that Roco hasn’t applied for any Arts Council funds.

“People think we have a lot of money, but we don’t. We’re not grant-supported in any way. We raised all of the money through loans.”

There are ambitions to bolster the place’s credentials as a food destination, too. An evening menu - ‘street food-style small plates’ - launches in the café this Thursday, coinciding with the start of the exhibition, and the rooftop bar is gaining popularity.

“As soon as the sun comes out it’s absolutely packed. The university and the hospitals have cottoned on to the fact we’re here now, which is fantastic. It’s seasonal, fresh, healthy food, and we try to keep it affordable, which is a dangerous thing to say.”

Roco is part of a Europe-wide group of ‘creative hubs’ including similar projects in Germany and Serbia, that Andrea has visited to compare notes.

“Big cities generally will have a few creative hubs - Sheffield lags behind, I think. In London there are something like 800 co-working spaces, here we’ve got something like three.

“Sheffield is very inward-facing, we don’t shout loudly enough to the rest of the world. There’s a move to try and change that.”

The Body Electric runs at Roco until June 29. Visit www.theroco.org for details.