Heygate Pyramid re-animated: Public Art Fights Back

Southwark Notes attention has been drawn by our international circle of art-loving friends to an article in Art Monthly, October 2014, entitled ‘Public Art Attack’ by writer and curator Andrew Hunt (here). The article writes in depth about the cancelled Pyramid for Heygate public artwork that we opposed and wrote about at length at the time. The article, amidst a heap of other artworks and references, makes a case that the dumping of the Pyramid through Council jitters from local hostility was a bad thing because the Pyramid as a symbol of top down ‘brutality’ would have been a perfect opportunity for ‘dialogue’ around processes of social cleansing.

The article also claims that local activists misread the artwork as ‘siding with gentrification and displacement’ thus enabling the council to cancel the project, ‘effectively gaggle local activists arguments’ and push the criticism onto ‘scapegoats’ Artangel and Nelson away from the Council. This is frankly pony and ill-informed as opposition was squarely aimed at the Council for colluding in the project and Artangel for its lack of sensitivity. In fact we didn’t ‘scapegoat’ Artangel, we directly blamed them for producing something on Heygate that would be used by the Council explicitly to sell and market the regeneration ‘opportunity area’, licking their lips at the massive cultural cred Nelson and Artangel would bring and their excitement to have this on Heygate site. Our early letter to Artangel from October 2013 makes a long point on this that Artangel sidelined in their eventual dismal reply: Artangel & Southwark Notes Emails

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As for ‘gagging’ ourselves – local campaigns existed well before the proposed Pyramid and they still exist after. They did not need the blessing or supposed intervention from the art world to make their arguments public and accessible. In fact the protests around the Pyramid and its cancellation was part and parcel of the continuing making known of what was happening around Heygate Estate and North Southwark and found many sympathetic ears in others local campaigns.

Mike Nelson was never attacked directly because without access to Mike Nelson as the writer seems to have had, it was always impossible to judge the artists intentions at the time. When the Pyramid was going through the motions of being prepared for the Heygate site, there were no public statements from Mike Nelson on his intentions such as those now retrospectively revealed by this article. It is also somewhat hard to trust these revelations of a pointedly critical work against Southwark Council’s treatment of Heygate residents, when Artangel and Nelson had been looking for a site for such a demolition and re-construction since 2009. This in some ways undercuts the argument then made around Heygate being chosen as an artistic target.

It is somewhat fanciful to imagine that Nelson was trying to pull the wool over Southwark’s misty eyes with his assertion that ‘an artwork was needed that represented the same form of brutality’. Artangel might produce monumental artworks by artists but it does not seem to have a long history of going in for projects that would be such an attack (on Southwark Council in this instance) as the one Nelson desires. Anyhow we would be interested to know where this Nelson quote comes from and when. There is no source for the quote in the article.

The Art Monthly article attempts then a somewhat revisionist version of what local opponents were saying at the time in a way that attempts (once again) to re-establish the primacy of art as a neutral space for ‘dialogue’. For us, as vocal and public critics of the intended public artwork, we still think that focusing now on the artists intentions are missing the point. We were clear at the time that our criticisms were more levelled at both Artangel and The Council and much less at Mike Nelson precisely because we were unable to judge what he had in mind with this Pyramid. Also worth saying we appreciated that the piece was not a ‘socially engaged work’ (as modern descriptions have it of creative projects done with usually disadvantaged communities or folks and all the ‘orrible discontents liable to surface in such artistic engagements). The Pyramid remains committed to the older form of The artist makes Artwork and the rest is up to us. Either way, we find both forms inherently problematic and full of unpleasant contradictions that ‘Art’ is unable to either resolve or improve.

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Maybe we can simply restate again our arguments and the feelings of some local residents including some of those who were displaced by the Heygate regeneration.

- Like the Council’s own imposition on Heygate residents of the regeneration scheme and it’s non-accountable resultant loss of 1000 public housing homes in favour of 1000’s of new private homes, the Artangel Pyramid also seemed a done deal foisted upon the remaining community. There was little attempt to ask local people and those who had been displaced what they thought about the art project. At Southwark Notes we offered numerous times to put Artangel in touch with local people and campaign groups so they could sound out local feeling. They ignored these offers in favour of later asking us for community contacts for engagement around the Pyramid only after it was built.

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Artangel also entered into contracts for demolition, had access to the Heygate site and spent much time figuring out how the Pyramid would be built and so on even before their planning application has been up for decision. This seems to point to us that the Council had already reassured them that all would be fine. Our initial letter to Artangel makes our point clearly that this kind of behaviour is made on the basis of the power of privilege that exists for middle class art curators but not for Heygate residents to decide (once again) what happens to where you live and your community. Some of those who had been ‘decanted’ just did not want this art to be allowed to arrive at the site and all the insensitivity this implied.

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– We made a concerted effort to criticise the Council and it’s desire for a triumphalist artwork on the Heygate site precisely because they wanted such a cultural capital-rich artwork to be instrumental in heralding the regeneration project. Being unable to ‘decipher’ much about any of the supposed artists intentions, they were happy to go along with it, whatever it was, alongside as it made headlines for them, as ‘Southwark’, for their regeneration project. It was only when local people made a fuss and promised a heated reception to the Pyramid that they then saw what an abyss of negative publicity opening up before their very beautiful regeneration scheme. Despite chummy assurances and helping Artangel prepare the site and scheme, they freaked out on Dec 20th 2013 and pulled the plug leaving Artangel in the lurch and (as we understand it from F.O.I requests) contractually obliged to the demolition company who they had hired to do the preliminary deconstruction work on Cuddington block.

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– It is clear to us from occasional conversations we find ourselves involved in that the idea that Pyramid would create a space, as Hunt says, ‘to reflect urgent political decisions and to engage in favourable dialogue with campaigners concerns’ still has some currency despite the campaign against the Pyramid and the very arguments on which it was resisted. Without an agreement or sensitivity to those locally who are the community about whether they want this artwork, bringing thousands of people to come into that community to see the Pyramid is disrespectful and also loaded with fantasies about how that audience will engage in this struggle not to be displaced from our homes. Art lovers or the curious might imagine they are entering into a dialogue or polemic about regeneration but, we suspect, that they are more likely to have an interesting day out at a site of social cleansing that is now only open to them as an artwork. For local campaigns who have spent years having their own public meetings, writing publications and websites, holding protests, anti-gentrification walks around the area and so on, there was little interest in having a Pyramid help them out especially one foisted upon them with zero attempts by the artist or Artangel to contact them beforehand.

For us, we remain committed to believing that such a public spectacle around the construction of a Pyramid out of one of the old Heygate housing blocks is of dubious use for any real actual political fighting against ongoing regeneration and social cleansing. Dubious because numerous art projects made on regenerating council estates up and down the U.K (including 2008’s Artangel-produced Seizure by Roger Hiorns on Harper Rd, another Southwark Council estate) have not resulted in a saving a single council home but have resulted in lots of concerned hot air, liberal hand wringing, pretentious art criticism and endless academic studies. Southwark Notes has met hundreds of people over the last 5 years with our optimistic willingness to explain our point of view to those who ask to meet us. Yet we would say 99% of those we meet will not give back from their art, writing or researches or put anything into the campaigns that they come and take from.

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It has been interested to see, after the Pyramid death, other London estates refusing to have art projects foisted upon them (Catherine Yass’s piano dropping art cancelled at the Balfron Tower, Canton St residents saying no to Performance Poplar on their estate). This is one way of assessing the strength and foresight of campaigns around social cleansing when art can be viewed not as a gift to fighting gentrification but suspiciously as a part of the very process of gentrification itself, a topic on which we have written perhaps too much!

Probably worth saying again that what we suggest as a good and strategic way of doing our politics in the struggle against regeneration and displacement demands that if we are to accept Art as a category then we must also demand that it is subject to scrutiny and that this scrutiny is used to understand where Art gives power and to who and thus where it takes power and from who.

 

ADDITION:
We heard today (16th Nov 2014) that the cancelling of the Pyramid via community campaigns described as a massive act of artistic censorship. With so much written by the campaigns about why they didn’t want the Pyramid artwork, you wonder what it takes to come up with that perspective and exactly what the persons stakes and investments in it are?! Once again, the Pyramid saga rolls on and on.

 

 

 

 

 

Walworth’s CoolTan Arts charity needs support against developer and Council

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Walworth Rd’s Cooltan Arts needs our support! CoolTan believes mental well-being is enhanced by the power of creativity. It’s a charity run by and for adults with mental distress. They run a varied programme of creative workshops from our vibrant arts centre in Walworth Road; these include visual arts, textiles, digital arts, video, poetry, and performing arts. Their activities include exhibitions, public art projects and well-being walks which help break down the stigma of mental distress.

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CoolTan was based for years in old Blanchard’s site on the Walworth Rd, behind what was Wimpy (if you remember!) but is now Mama Thai.  Cooltan secured a legally binding promise for new premises in this development but the site was later bought up by Goldcrest,a particularly expansive land acquisition, development and sales company. Goldcrest are now trying not to honour the S106 agreement 
if the development goes ahead as proposed.  In the mean time CoolTan have been temporarily based over the road in offices above the Post Office.

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CoolTan building and users at Blanchard Site before the demolition

Cooltan is a great organisation which has won the Queens Award for Voluntary Service http://www.cooltanarts.org.uk/category/press-releases. Now they need locals and others to do what they can to make sure it stays in Walworth, so please try to  get along to the planning meeting at Southwark Council Offices, 160 Tooley St SE1 2QH, tomorrow 7pm Tues 3Nov 2014, when a planning committee meeting will decide their future!

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It’s especially important to support CoolTan not just because developments such as these are hammering local community groups and forcing them out of the area but because the Council in it’s wisdom is not supporting CoolTan despite the amazing and vital work they do for local people:

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Above from The Council’s report on the 237 Walworth Rd planning application. Particularly rubbish is that previously as stated in the Council’s own report on the site is that ‘The council supported the provision made for Cooltan Arts as they provide a valuable community service‘. What has changed then?

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We often wonder how Section 106 which is the supposed community benefit wrought from developers can just be snapped away with the click of the fingers. The development itself is more private homes with a minimum of affordable housing (4 shared ownership and 4 target rent). Goldcrest has the cheek to argue that providing CoolTan with a space there will affect the viability of them providing the affordable units. Once again, the viability is argued not against the millions of profit they make on the private houses they are putting up but against the paltry number of ‘affordable’ homes they are required to build. Nice eh?

 

ESTATE AGENT LINGO DECODED

We posted this years ago and are re-upping it for your er..delights. Contributions to our decoding of estate agent lingo greatly accepted> elephantnotes(at)yahoo.co.uk

Wanna buy a flat in The Elephant? Our guide to the estate agent lingo…

Thinking of moving to the area? The  more cynical wing of Southwark  Notes has furnished us with this handy cut out ‘n’ keep translation of developer and estate agent brochure-speak.

‘VILLAGE’You’re surrounded by council estates on all sides.
‘NEW BUILD’The walls are paper thin.
‘BUZZY’
There’s three lanes of traffic below your windowsill.
‘DIVERSE’People who aren’t middle-class and white live there.

CREATIVE’ The artists who attracted you to the area are about to be priced out – by you.
‘EXCITING’Someone’s gonna have your iPhone in five minutes.
‘DYNAMIC There’s a small nightclub and two Chicken Cottages.
‘UNIQUE’ It’s just like the other posh rabbit hutch over the road.

‘CONTEMPORARY’ A kid with some Lego could have designed it.
‘REAL’ There’s a big white working-class population.
‘VIBRANT’There’s a big Carribean population.
‘EXOTIC’ There’s a big African population.

‘CULTURAL’ The Imperial War Museum is up the road.
‘ICONIC’ The buidling is lop-sided or shaped like a vegetable.
‘SUSTAINABLE’ The architect has some put some wood on the front.
‘STUNNING’ Expensive.

‘OASIS’ You’re living behind huge security gates.
‘URBAN’It’s in London, duh!
‘EXCLUSIVE’ –  You will drive to and from home so don’t have to interact locally.
‘QUARTERBasically, you’re living in a yuppiedrome.

*-) As humourists we won’t be giving up our day jobs just quite yet. We do welcome contributions to our handy guide. Pass on ‘em.

Can we stop the demolition of our council homes? Get down to this…please!

We will be there and with our Staying Put: Anti-Gentrification Handbook for Council Estates in London handbook too! See you there.

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Open Letter to Southwark Council to not attend MIPIM 2014

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Developers eye up London at MIPIM 2013

Dear Peter John,
We were extremely concerned to discover that the London Borough of Southwark will be attending the MIPIM property fair at Olympia, London from 15 to 17 October. As you will know, given your attendance at MIPIM in 2013, which was paid for by Lend Lease, the developers of the Heygate site, MIPIM has been held every year in Cannes in France and is to take place for the first time in Britain this October. Alongside Southwark Council, MIPIM will be attended by developers, lawyers, banks and investors.

Since the MIPIM website says that it is ‘the first UK property trade show gathering all professionals looking to close deals on the UK property market’, we were wondering why Southwark Council would go and what kind of ‘deals’ will the council be seeking to strike and how will these deals benefit tenants and local council residents?

In consideration of the harm the deals struck at MIPIM are likely to do to local residents, Hammersmith and Fulham, the host borough, has, following the defeat of local Conservatives and Labour taking control of the council, pulled out of the fair and is attempting to recoup its stall costs. The Tower Hamlets Council Assembly last week resolved not to attend MIPIM and condemned the profit-driven housing policy that it represents and furthers.

As well as their role in pushing up rents for private tenants and destroying council housing, the attending developers have a shocking record of affordable housing provision, reflected in the workshop title “Affordable Housing: Is it Worth It?”

As members of a number of groups from across the borough and from various housing tenures who are concerned with housing and the effects of ‘regeneration’ which has, to date, failed to provide any benefits whatsoever to residents and areas being ‘regenerated’ we call on you and the London Borough of Southwark to reconsider your attendance at MIPIM and show that you are fully committed to a housing policy in the interest of local people and NOT those of private profits.

We look forward to hearing from you.

Yours Sincerely,

Southwark Tenants
People’s Republic of Southwark
Southwark Notes
Elephant Amenity Network

UPDATE 21st September: So far the only response has been the following nonsense from the mouth of Peter John:

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Presumably, most of our readers can understand the substance of the Open Letter to the Council and why we are critical of MIPIM and suspicious of the Council’s desire to be there. For Peter John it was not so easy. He thinks that describing it as ‘vague anti-capitalism‘ is enough for the whole matter to be done and dusted by him. Must try harder, we say.

Parroting about their supposed building of ‘11,000 new council homes‘ to any criticism is not really much of an answer as the homes are only a promise and not an ‘inconvenient truth‘ until they are all built and we can count them. Until them they remain a promise and we don’t have much patience for Southwark’s promises after the last 20 years of Heygate regeneration.

Council Wants to Speak to You: From Community Conversation to Community Conversion

Er..you might not have seen it but Southwark has ‘launched’ a new initiative as part of their own-going Community Conversation. This time they are asking people about how they feel on the plan to build 11,000 new Council homes across the borough. Seems fair enough plan, no? However, the devil will be in the detail. As we already said many times before, the idea of building all these new homes is laudable and we would support it if we actually felt like there was not a predictable hidden agenda behind the plan – further demolition of local council estates in the guise of ‘regenerating them’ as ‘mixed communities’. We spent years writing and campaigning against the results of these ‘regenerations’ – displacement of local people and social cleansing – forgive us we seem doubtful of the Council’s intentions.

With the scandal of the Heygate demolition and displacement of residents still fresh in people’s minds and the ongoing Compulsory Purchase Orders being used against Aylesbury leaseholders as well as the future loss of social housing units that the ‘regeneration’ of the estate means, we remain suspicious of further Council plans for Elephant, Walworth, Camberwell and so on.

Two groups have been looking further into the details of the plans for the 11,000 new homes. It’s worth us putting up two links to the good and proper arguments they are making:

• Peoples Republic of Southwark: Housing Conversations

“Where are all those new homes to go? Where can they go? If you look at the map of Southwark as it is, Dulwich seems the most spacious. Except that a lot of land in Dulwich is privately owned so it’s a no-go area for ‘mixed communities’.

The lovely folk at 35% campaign have recently published an image (taken from the council’s Community Infrastructure Levy documents) which highlighted virtually all of Camberwell, Walworth and Peckham as ‘areas for major redevelopment’, precisely where we now have the largest number of council estates. The only way anyone would be able to build 11,000 or 50,000 new homes would be to knock down an unspecified amount of existing council estates and replace them with two, three times as many homes of all tenures. If this sounds a bit similar to what’s happening at the Elephant, Aylesbury, around Blackfriars Road, etc it’s because it is”.

 

• Southwark Defend Council Housing: Join Our Community Conversation Document

“This document reproduces the questions Southwark is asking in its ‘Community Conversation’ about its plans to build 11,000 new council homes. Southwark Defend Council Housing has included comments to explain why these proposals are so dangerous. The Community Conversation strongly implies that the Council intend to demolish the houses and flats on a large number of estates, in what they are calling the Estate Renewal Zone, which covers most of Peckham, Camberwell and
Walworth.

Although they are committed to building 11,000 new council homes, there may be no additional houses or flats overall for ordinary Southwark residents. We know from experience that the estates will be rebuilt at a much higher density, with most of the additional housing being for sale. It is this element which will finance the new council flats. They say they will complete the job by 2042, with the initial 1800 flats.”

Well worth reading the whole of Defend Council Housing’s considered reply document to Southwark’s Conversation and its 6 pledges to local people: SDCH_Survey_Council_Housing_2014_Final

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From Community Conversation to Community Conversion

It’s unfortunate that the image Southwark chooses to illustrate it’s Community Conversation with an image of the chattering classes – fresh faced, well scrubbed up and designer clothes. This photo seems to much more likely show the kind of people moving to the new Heygate development and buying flats anywhere up from £350,000. Am sure the Council webteam didn’t spend too long thinking through the inclusion of this stock photograph but it does speak volumes about presenting how out of touch they are with most local people and what that photo might mean to anyone opening up the Community Conversation for the first time. This is what Walworth and Elephant still looks like to us:

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After years of being what we call ‘consulted to death’ over more and more regeneration plans, there is a certain cynicism about how these consultations (don’t!) work. Instead of asking and funding local people to engage with their own neighbourhoods, come up with local plans, spend time reaching hard to reach voices in their communities and so on, Council consultations mostly just ask for individual contributions and don’t plan to systematically make sure that the hundreds of local societies, parents groups, schools, campaigns, youth clubs, pensioners clubs and so on prepare a response. Expecting people to come to you to answer questions is always the wrong way around for genuine consultations. You have to go where people are and in that setting involve them. Anything else is both limited (by design) and just a Public Relations exercise. Such ideas on how to consult are not rocket science, just common sense. We wish local people were paid tons an hour as the contracted-in consultation industry professionals are. If that happened there would be a more serious engagement with local people’s feelings and ideas and less of a top-down imposition of false consultations.

In the past and today we still see the ‘facts’ bandied about that ‘80% support the regeneration of The Elephant‘ because at some random Council consultation a tiny fraction of local people individually said they liked the plans. This is a ridiculous and misleading statement and offensive seeing as regeneration will affect thousands more people than those who tick a box saying they liked regeneration at some mysterious time and place in the past. This is not seriously asking what local people want but the repetition of this ‘fact’ serves the Council’s agenda of just getting on with doing what it wants (as we have seen at Heygate despite years of seriously informed opposition by local people). As we said on our Listening To No End writing into the miserable consultation company Soundings (who did Lend Lease’s and the Council bidding) and their miraculous figures on who supports what locally – ‘In no other industry, apart from the newly invented ‘regeneration’ industry, could these statistics be credible!’

Yet, local people are stuck between a rock and a hard place by wanting to have some arena for getting their voice heard and affecting Council decisions but feeling that there is no real point, as historically these Council exercises in ‘listening’ only really serve to give the Council some cred on going ahead to do what it was always going to do.

Here is a link to the Council Survey that is asking for your views. You don;t have to register to fill it in. Look for the second web link right at the bottom – “No thanks, just take me to the form:

In a rare moment of non-cynicism (:-0), we suggest as many people as possible fill it in with serious and tough questions for the Council and follow up after the deadline (Oct 13th) asking for the Council to publish online all replies to the survey.

PS: On the topic of Southwark Council pledges (such as the 6 pledges in the Community Conversation, here is one from March 2o14, just before the May 2014 elections: “our pledge to deliver free swimming and gym use to all Southwark residents’ (Peter John, Council Leader). Compare this pledge to this more recent update on our free swimming and gym use: here. – ‘Southwark’s free swimming could start with Fridays-only deal’.

‘Should Art Be Used to Push London’s Rents Up?’

‘Syd Gale of local blog Southwark Notes told me, “I would think a better symbol of The Elephant is not one up on its hind legs but one shot in the head and it’s ivory tusks ripped out. The Council shot it and the developers poached the valuables. All day-to-day events in the regeneration safari.

Yes, our great man Syd Gale breaks it down quite easily in answer to this question and the rather odd story of the Sam Keil artwork / not artwork proposed to and supported by the Council bigwigs but now denied by all. Luckily, we saved the PDF that no longer appears in public on Sam Keil’s website: not here!

PDF is here: Sam Keil PDF

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Full story here at..er..Vice. Glad our researches keep gaining some ground wherever they are published. A truly bizarre story made even more bizarre by Hayden Vernon approaches to Sam and the Council. Nice one.

We like the bit in Vernon’s story when ‘I approached Fiona Colley and she told me that Keil’s comments were unwelcome and laughed off the proposal as silly and self-aggrandising‘. Here is a letter from October 2013 by Jon Abbot, Southwark Council’s Elephant and Castle Project Director to Chris Allen of Oakmayne, the former developer of Tribeca Sq, proposed site of Keil’s bronze elephant:

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We can highlight this bit in that letter to break it down further:
“I managed to meet with both Cllr Fiona Colley and Eleanor Kelly and I wanted to inform you they were both very enthusiastic about the proposed Samatha Keil elephant sculpture and are very supportive. They think it would be well received locally and think it’s a strong idea from a place making point of view”.

Syd is available for further comments should the Council need him to explain what they are doing.