THE FINE ART OF REGENERATION IN SOUTHWARK
• For writings and resources on Artists Working Against Gentrification – Click here
• For writings and resources on Art and Gentrification – Click here
WHOSE ART IS IT ANYWAY?
Sometimes we wonder why communities undergoing regeneration often see a surge of public and privately-funded artworks springing up as part of completed office blocks or, more likely, on transitional sites of development. One blessing, at least, is the death of 1980’s Public Art that represented a nostalgic look back at the hard workers of the past as if the back-breakin’ hard workers of today are non-existent. Sculptures of stevedores, warehousemen, navvies etc. is what we call like to call ‘muscular heritage’. It uses the dubious notion of ‘heritage’ to put a soft focus on hard work and the accident prone and often health debilitating conditions that it was undertaken in and displays it back to us as a kind of set in stone past where nothing can be said, nothing can move, and nothing can puncture these now frozen half memories. Seems like people working in the now ‘heritage’ buildings such as wharves, warehouses, factories and so on are just as immobile and immoveable as the buildings themselves. It’s all just ‘heritage’ now without any sense of cause or consequence or even accountability for the firms or owners who profited from it all.
‘Heritage‘ is also the term overused by councils and developers to sell an area that was formerly warehouses and factories. It pretends to be historical but the actual history of the people who worked their bums off in the buildings is airbrushed out. Such stories only to return as statues or murals for a little local colour for the new spruced up area or worse as funky titles for new overpriced flats – The Jam Factory, The Wireworks, Spice Quay Heights, Phossy Jaw Apartments, Tubercolosis Tower, Broken Back Mews, The Severed Finger Building etc. It’s then an inevitable route to ‘conservation area’ – see the 1990′s Bermondsey Conservation Area Partnership.
‘The Deal Porters‘ at Surrey Quays is a good example of the dignity of back-breakin’ labour of the salt of the earth created in our honour by those who never did it. It was commissioned by London Docklands Development Corporation who were selling off public land and estates in Southwark in the 1980′s. The plaque that accompanies it reads in part ‘The sculpture is a tribute to the immeasurable effort expended by the deal porters who sorted the deal, a softwood timber imported from North America, as part of the bustling activity that characterised Canada Dock until it closed in 1970“.
ART SAYING NOTHING CONCRETE…
Instead, what we have seen locally has been the popular ‘Seizure’ by Roger Hiorns at 151 – 189 Harper Rd where the artist used an empty council flat in a block that was being demolished and filled it with copper sulphate crystals that grew over the six months duration and made a kind of nice blue shiny grotto. Hiorns said about the council estate he used ‘..in the great social experiment these buildings inferred, they provided no room for movement, zero mobility to move further, they are completely static materially and emotionally“. Is this true?
Seizure was a hit anyhow with folks travelling from all over London to visit the artwork described in ArtForum as ‘a jewel in a rough neighbourhood“! Cue lots of arts reviews using the words ‘brutalist modernist architecture‘ and ‘grimy council estate‘ all over the place as they trekked from afar to come to ‘the backlands behind South London’s Elephant and Castle‘ which is ‘in a part of town nobody goes to unless they happen to live there‘. It was a controversial site in that it was specified to be demolished and be one of the infamous ‘early housing’ schemes for Heygate decanted tenants that were never built by the time they had moved out. There was also some trouble at the Lawson Tenants and Residents Association who objected to the plan for 72 Housing Association flats being built in the site as the new garden in the development seemed to exclude existing residents. Full story here. Will not be the first or indeed the last art project in local estates (Ho Ho – June 2011 – see Displaced below!). How much money on when the first Heygate Estate art in an empty flat arrives? Twenty quid? More?
The Stag by Ben Long was at Elephant Rd where the old SG Smith cars was. Stag was part sponsored by Oakmayne Properties who are planning to build a ginormous development of private housing and restaurants on the site. Stag came and went.
Long-term local boy Reuben Powell’s (one-time Artist-in-Residence at the Elephant & Castle Shopping Centre) gallery on the second floor of the Shopping Centre was much more contradictory. Working with some Regeneration sponsorship, Powell creates quite beautiful large-scale charcoal drawings of the demolition and construction of the area, a record of the changes that neither affirms or denies this process but merely aestheticises it for consumption, and sale. Nigel Hugill, chairman of Lend Lease, sponsor of an earlier exhibition alongside Oakmayne and Lend Lease, said “Reuben has a unique style and his project is a good example of how art can meaningfully capture the area’s changing face for future generations to enjoy‘. Reuben’s 4 by 2 metre painting on tin called ‘Elephant And Castle’ is now permanently displayed in the foyer of the new Tooley St Southwark Council offices. The two blokes in front of the picture here are Nick Stanton (ex Leader of Southwark Council) and Lend Lease’s UK boss Dan Labbad.
Reuben was running Hotel Elephant in an old warehouse by the railway bridge at 77-85 Newington Causeway. Here for the details of the shows.
In September 2012, Hotel Elephant moved into the old Doctors Surgery on the almost empty Heygate Estate and launched its new incarnation as part of the annual local Elefest 2012. Hotel Elephant ´is committed to developing self-sustaining and accessible cultural activities in our neighbourhood´. Elefest was one of seven recipients of funding from the new Lend Lease-created Elephant and Castle Community Fund out of a 25 grand pot. Reuben is one of the two directors of Elefest which turned itself into a Private Company in March this year to take on the running of the festival which was first established in 2002 by New Elephant Open Network NEON). NEON was ´a voluntary organisation that aimed to keep the creativity of local people at the heart of the Elephant and Castle’s regeneration´.
None of this is meant to point any mean or personal finger at Reuben or Elefest nor to suggest anyone is making any real money from it. They aren´t. We just wish that there was some way for these obviously hard-working artistic endeavours to step back from the abyss of council and developer-funded spectacles that are, at the end of the day, only about the promotion of The Elephant regeneration agenda and it´s attendant gentrification. It´s the oldest story in the book that artists make an area attractive for investment and then they are the first ones to lose out when all the temporary spaces and cheap studios are converted to expensive flats. Not only that but there is some kind of sensitivity needed when bringing art and artists to the Heygate site. That place is a open wound for many who were treated by The Council with appalling contempt.It is also a place where local people are fighting Compulsory Purchase Orders. It is not an empty site ripe for more adventures in the art playgrounds of recent graduates from St Martins and Chelsea art colleges. Of if it can be that then there has to be some discussion first with those who homes are there. Otherwise don´t talk about ´community´ because the Heygate community (or a better description) different communities within the estate were thrown out of the area against their clearly expressed desires and wishes. This was only done to free up the land and to bring new more super expensive private housing to The Elephant in place of 1100 large, cheap and much enjoyed secure council homes. Any art on the Heygate can only happen because of that displacement.
On sensitivity as we were talking about above: ‘The Tomb and The Fountain: OPENING NIGHT: JANUARY 25th 2013 – Hotel Elephant Gallery is housed in the old surgery in the heart of the Heygate Estate, Elephant and Castle. Described recently as a ‘brutalist Versailles’, this 1970’s utopian dream of post war social housing, now derelict and empty provides a unique backdrop for emerging artistic talent.”
The Heygate is neither empty nor totally derelict (as Hotel Elephant know very well) with many local people have been maintaining community gardens, film shows, chickens, social gatherings, walks and so on – not as a scenic ‘backdrop’ to anything but for real! Two weeks after this Opening Night the last leaseholders will go to their Compulsory Purchase hearing (and ordeal), the last thing they need is artistic talent. What they need is solidarity and support!
Most of this public (or fairly public) art says little about the process of knocking down and building up of the developing E+C area. Like most art these days, such ´public art´, lacking any possible powerful resonance, is usually contained entirely within wacky, curious, flashily technical or overly and usually very poor conceptual parameters saying very little to anyone who may be interested in a culture that asks questions of who we are, where we live and what and why we do things. It also fails to see that culture is never neutral and contains within it many highly contradictory positions that need to be both understood and worked through. What are artists accountabilities to sites, areas and thus local people, communities and so on. What are the consequences of being part of these artistic safari’s into poor communities? Promoting ´creativity’ does not make these problems and the accompanying antagonisms disappear. What is meant by the overused and meaningless term ´creativity´ and what is the origin of it´s new found popularity? We suggest a good starting point here: No Room To Move: Radical Art and the Regenerate City
Another local good example of this creative pointlessness is Ben Long saying of his Stag: ‘With this project, my ambition has been to make an iconic artwork which functions as a surprising and integral part of people’s daily lives. It is my intention to create artworks that engage with people who might otherwise have little or no involvement in the visual arts‘. Wot, people like us? Cheeky bugger!
OR ART ALL ABOUT FORTHCOMING CONCRETE…
Gill Sans by Ron Haselden in the Cannon St railway line arches at Bankside (Burrell St and Union St) feature the bridge numbers 401, 403 and 406 done in Gill Sans typeface (one of our favourites) as a kind of intentional new lighting system to make the passage beneath more friendly. A kind of hybrid public art-street furniture crossover perhaps as ‘part of the long-term Light at the End of the Tunnel strategy to transform 88 bridge and roadway tunnel lightings through an innovative use of both functional and decorative lighting, engaging with artists, architects and lighting designers’. It was commissioned by The Council as part of the making Bankside more attractive as part of the ongoing effects of the arrival of the Tate Modern up the road. This was strategically described by Cross River Partnerships, partner funder of the Light At The End of The Tunnel (LET) project, as a boost to ‘economic development and job creation in some deprived areas” by tackling dingy streets seen “as a barrier to inward investment in the area‘. The long-term scheme was not just about lighting up a load of tunnels, it was also about opening up arches to businesses and as such all the new cafes and deli’s close to Waterloo along Isabella St. Of course, we realise that such new lighting does make an area feel more local, cared for and liveable. We just wonder why such new schemes don’t seem to come around unless there is the prospect of big developments to attract to an area.
Cross River Partnerships is a public-private partnership that has been part of numerous regeneration projects in London since 1994 and are in some ways a somewhat forgotten about key agency in local regeneration / gentrification. One of the partners is now Better Bankside, which is otherwise know as a Business Improvement District. It came into effect in 2005 and was the first BID South of the river. Self-described as ‘A Business Improvement District (BID) is an independent, business-owned and led company, which seeks to improve a given location for commercial activity. Better Bankside’s members are the 460 companies in the BID area who pay its annual ‘levy’. Many of these are heavily involved in the governance of the company‘. The writer Anna Minton has published extensively on the dubious local merits of BIDS. You can read her paper What Kind Of World Are We Building? The Privatisation Of Public Space here.
Other LET public art/lighting rigs can be found on Clink St (a kind of fireworks display made up from 9600 LED lights in the tunnel roof) which was part-funded in 2010 by Bankside Mix, the shopping site of the mega Bankside 123 development, through a Section 106 planning gain agreement and with some money from Southwark Council. Also more LET lighting and brightening up stuff at Isabella St, Tanner St and beyond at many of Southwark great railway bridges.
LARGE THINGS PLONKED DOWN IN PUBLIC SUDDENLY
Public art just seems to be something added into the regeneration process as another tick of the box. Peter Logan’s pointless and ugly ‘Arrows and Obelisk’ outside Tescos on Old Kent Rd. It’s not even unique – he put another one almost exactly the same outside BHS at the Grafton shopping centre in Cambridge in 1996. ‘Swordfish Masquerade‘ by Sokari Douglas Camp CBE at the 81 Hanover Park, Peckham is also a bit ugly. Sokari’s husband Alan Camp is the architect who designed the building. Seven private sale flats over a Nandos in Lewisham are the same story - designed by Alan, featuring a sculpture by Sokari. Keeping it real in South London. Sokari Camp was also a key player in the Bellenden Road Regeneration, one of the first art renewals in Peckham, the posher part. Worth reading this overflowing guff from the Independent Colour Magazine for the grim story: Bend it like Peckham
Is there any reason they are there? At least the mysterious Henry Moore sculpture on the Brandon Estate does more for us artistically than the execrable ‘Monument to the Unknown Artist’ by Greyworld recently inflicted upon the public on Sumner St. This eyesore was commissioned by giant property developers Land Securities for this site, as was the banal ‘Poured Lines‘ by Ian Davenport up on Southwark St pictured above (By the way, we added the black text over the coloured lines!).
How much longer before we get out own Antony Gormley sculpture to sanctify a newly regenerated Elephant + Castle? (*See below for shocking find!!)
These temporary spectacles don’t really enhance or give much to the local community in the way that some bunce money can often be argued out of tight-fisted developers for some local trees and benches or redecorating a community centre etc. Public art, which can seem at first sight to be a generous gift, often really works as best an advert for an up and coming area. Without writing an essay worthy of the length of ‘War and Peace’, we would say that a dubious set of supposed cultural values often accompanies the imposition of ‘culture’ into local areas in the form of public art as if we have not been making our own culture for hundreds of years here.
Bizarrely enough (or we suppose exactly the kind of thing we are moaning about above), Joseph Kosuth has created the appalling ‘A Last Parting Look (for C.D.)‘, the CD being Charles Dickens who knew two or three things about the area. To sum up, a load of text from Pickwick Papers has been placed down the side of the newly gentrified warehouses at 22 Leathermarket St and it lights up at night (see ‘cos the text talks about light and dark!!). Sponsored in part by the Arts Council, we wonder why this is here, why it was ever chosen and what happened to Joseph Kosuth who started out in life as a heavily Marxist conceptual artist who had at the time two or three things to say about art, middle-class culture, power and wealth. No longer it seems. Bummer! Anyhow another U.S.P on your luxury flat!
Fiona Banner’s Full Stops from 2004 are five pieces of ‘public art’ as part of a Section 106 community contribution and nicely highlighted on The Council’s plug for the ginormous 13 acre More London development at Tower Bridge. Section 106 planning agreement between More London Development and Southwark Council was for £230,000 for art as part of the development and then increased by More London to £350,000. A further £105,000 raised from Pool of London Partnership and the Arts & Business New Partners scheme.
Banner’s Balls are described as ‘like a sentence from which the words have been removed, the Full Stops are playful in character, and yet full of pathos. When long shadows double their form on sunny days, their monolithic and almost totemic quality is even further enhanced‘. Basically Fiona took five full stops from five typefaces and enlarged them, made them three dimensional and Bob’s Ya Uncle thus giving the public ‘in solid form the pause, the silence, the moment we draw breath and reflect. The full stop is both a beginning as well as an end‘. We here at Southwark Notes Cultural Dept are still holding our breath on this one!
Also at More London is David Bachelor’s Evergreen, a bright green fluorescent light sculpture of a tree made from acrylic and steel erected next to some trees, made of wood, bark and leaves that don’t light up. Evergreen took around £75,000 of overall budget for public art for the site of £455,000 and was opened in September 2003. Then there is also Couple by Stephan Balkenhol, a wooden carved couple on totem poles described thus: ‘Balkenhol avoids creating a narrative or leading to an allegorical interpretation. His figures are devoid of specific associations. His figures wear nondescript outfits, further emphasizing the everydayness of their forms and not likely to give anything away‘.
Alison Marchant’s Trace appeared in the summer of 20o5 in the windows of the gentrified Neckinger Mills on Abbey St. It was definitely better than the other statue-style public art in that as a working class woman and artist she had attempted to connect both her own history and the hidden history of the women mill workers together. The work was also based on interviews with surviving mill workers which was turned into a radio programme. Somewhat amusingly, the owner of the flat, the composer Michael Nyman, decided he couldn’t live in such a crazy bohemian loft as he first imagined he might so he put it on the market for ‘cool’ £1 million after seven years of non-residential ownership. He said “‘An artist friend made me a large frieze of old photos she had found in archives of the site’s tannery workers,’ he says, pointing to the windows that line one side of the flat. I had it printed up on plastic and fixed to the panes on that side to block the view of the flats opposite’ Even though Michael has had the property on the market since March this year at £1.15 million there have been no takers“.
You can see the artwork in the estate agents brochure (above) which reads: ‘To be able to acquire 2,233 sq ft of lateral space with high ceilings and create your own fantastic loft style apartment must be a wonderful opportunity, in fact a dream come true! Built in the 19th Century, Neckinger Mills became a successful tannery, assisted by the fact that the river Neckinger flowed near by. It is mentioned in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist as Fagin taught the children the art of pickpocketing there. The Mill’s gated courtyard provides private parking for two cars. With Shad Thames, Borough Market and Bermondsey Antique Market a stroll away there is no lack of excellent shopping, restaurants and good communications”. All the contradictions of art, loft living, Fagin, millions of pounds and labour’s lost history spin around our heads! Anyhow the brochure does not mention the U.S.P of the public artwork!
Alison Marchant wrote what looks like an interesting article about her work but we don’t have access to University web portals to read it all as we are neither academics nor students. There is a bit of page one here: Treading the Traces of Discarded History: Oral History Installations
MAN IN CLOTH CAP SPOTTED INSIDE STRATA
Recently the ground floor retail unit at the bottom of Strata Tower played host to an exhibition of photographs of local people. This is part of the Strata Towers commitment to ‘the Arts‘, as they call it. You can read about it here, if you dare! (LINK NOW DEAD!)
‘To celebrate the official opening of Strata SE1 in July‘, photographer Hannah Maule-ffinch provided twenty or so ‘Faces of Elephant & Castle’, some of which we reproduce here. Alongside the faces were notes reading, for example, ‘Fred, 36 years in the community‘ making it all sound a bit like trying for parole! Anyhow no surprises that the portraits were stereotypes of The Elephant characters including a police warden, a Muslim girl, an African woman, Fred in his cloth cap and a local youth. Of course, all these people live here and that’s great but it looks more like a Council social inclusion programme than getting to grip with what makes The Elephant great. Somewhat amusingly appearing on the windows inside the empty retail unit is about as near as any of these people will realistically get to residing in Strata.
When we heard that Strata was getting all arty on us, we did fear the worse as ‘art’ these days when it’s applied to the public does tend to deal in the easiest and most simple of messages. The message here is that it’s all good at The Elephant. No-one is unhappy! No need for the past. No need for criticism. Everything has to be positive.
It’s no surprise also that works of art by students of Camberwell College of Art have been featuring on the side of Strata too: ‘Working with the College, Brookfield set their artists the open challenge of creating a piece of public art which best depicts community and sustainable living in the Elephant & Castle. From a swathe of entries submitted by students twelve were shortlisted by a panel of judges…The winning submission is already in place on the two large glass panels enclosing the building’s foyer‘.
Here are some of the students ideas:
‘This artwork takes the form of a stylised flow of panels that ruminate upon the technical and social aspects of the building, offering glimpses into Elephant and Castle’s bright future. Community solidarity, environmentalism, cutting-edge technology and a glance back to the base function of the home are intertwined together in his attempt to envision the new lives of the dwellers of Strata SE1 and those that live around them’.
‘The concept behind this artwork is to give the building a more humanistic feel and inspire a sense of community. The typographic design is intended to be organic; relating to sustainable living, and the photo mirrors the views people living there will see. Home is where the art is; welcome to the Strata building.’
‘This complex biomorphic sculpture depicts organic biomasses with a strong reference to mutation that is expressed through a combination of “pop” and “baroque” touches. The “Alternative Transformation Gold Evolution” in an alchemical metaphoric meaning, symbolises glory and ambition as the internal motives of the Strata SE1 pioneers, who lead in the evolutionary construction of this significant building with its aim to contribute to ‘community’ and ‘sustainable living’.*-)
We await with trepidation the proposed £100,000 of Section 6 planning gain money that Strata has promised ‘for an art installation (made predominately of glass) within entrance area‘.
UPDATE: FEB 2011 – Oh, the S106 cash was spent on the Camberwell College pieces instead! Hilarious and great value for money if a little bit temporary. Not really a community benefit as S106 is supposed to be. Not even a crappy sculpture!
MARCH 2012: We found out proper that in fact the £100,00 was allegedly spent on on the above described arts project and not spent on the creation of some fancypants glass public art tucked away in the Strata foyer. You can read the grisly details here in a Freedom of Information Request.
THE ELEPHANT ARTS
Luckily in The Elephant we have not yet seen the creation of a silly local urban patriotism such as the ‘I LOVE PECKHAM’ strategy (* oops, here it comes!). Such weird alliances of artists and galleries, property owners, local government, small shop-keepers and then local people deny that the interests of all who live in the area are never one and the same. These kind of displays of ‘simple images, emotive and celebratory and a love of consumption’ mask the reality that at the bottom of any regeneration process is a very real class division. Put simply, this means the continuing poverty and the marginalisation of their existence and concerns of that poorer community. With that in mind, we can already see that after the collapse of the first attempted Elephant regeneration scheme, the Council scaled back it’s commitment to local inquiry and consultation when they saw that residents often gave them answers other than the ones they wanted. Marginalisation means a consultation paper with two boxes to tick:
(1) Lots of regeneration
(2) Lots more regeneration.
Questions concerning the merits of such a process are never asked of people. That would be to question entirely the business-led model of regeneration. Corporate Investors like Oakmayne or St Modwen do not invest in people. They invest in brick and concrete for profit. What would a local people-centered regeneration look-like? Similarly, what would a genuine public art look like? Like this maybe from Alberto Duman‘s entry to the Spitalfields public art programme. It says ‘CAUTION: CLEANING IN PROGRESS’. Very wry!
FOR THE COMMUNITY, INIT? ISN’T IT?
Leaving aside the more public artworks as described above (statues and murals and stuff), there has recently been a local tendency for an increasing amount of artists working in ‘the community‘. That there has been a swing away from the heavy object-based public art towards a lot more more supposed community-based art projects is no surprise really. It just really follows a trend set between a horrible collision of art schools working with councils and developers,business and retail associations, more clued-up property development managers who understand how such local projects are really good public relations and marketing exercises and finally aspiring artists keen to be ‘socially engaged‘ or ‘work with participation‘ and so on. The key to the above is that such community-based projects seem to be more grassroots and all about hearing people’s voices than plonking down a big silly statue outside a new development. That must be ‘cos listening to what the community is all about must be A GOOD THING, RIGHT? Well, not always!
Why do we think this? Simply put, we can find a 1001 days and nights of simple ‘working with local people‘ to source cliched references being used as material for these kind of community art projects – cockney songs, local ethnic recipes, pie + mash, your dog, your idiosyncratic front room, your sad tales, your happy tales, gawdluvverduck! But why would any community faced with gentrification be happy to be the source of something artistic that is an integral part of creating the conditions for the future displacement of that very community? Needless to say sponsors of such projects (The Tate, Thames Gateway, London Development Agency, Olympics Development Agency, St Modwen, LendLease, Strata etc) are not queuing up to fund artworks critical of their role in the continuing gentrification of the area. They just want some shiny happy people art like every other regeneration art fandango anywhere else in the world:
Very few of these art projects have any real contextual sense of history of place (other than that very personal one described in our list above) nor any real sense of both the cultural and aesthetic battles long fought out in poor communities by working people or the duration of local politics of housing, work, service provision and why that stuff is so important.The Tate aside from being a giant property developer itself, was one of the key reasons why Bankside took off as a site for mega-posh developments such as Bankside Lofts, Bankside 123 and Neo-Bankside for example. Would The Tate like to do a local project on this gentrification and it’s complicity in this process?
Well, yes, almost but only it it could be spun ‘artistically’! They had something about local history and it’s historical contentions in 2005 when two Danish artists Elsebeth Jørgensen and Pia Rönicke were invited to rummage around in the Southwark Local Studies Library (as we do for this site) and stick what they found up on the hoardings around the Tate! Again in 2010, Swedish artist Martin Karlsson, put his updated drawings of Gustave Dore’s amazing and hellish vision of London from 1872 to modern days on the hoardings that surround the site of the Tate mega expansion development! Here is one Gustave Dore we like that says it all about the difference between heritage and history and the fairly bland nature of Karlsson’s idea and vision. Yes, we didn’t like it as an art project. Sorry. Dore’s London: A Pilgrimage is pretty profound after all in it’s vast biblical close-up of the dark everyday misery of Victorian London and its labours.
DO YOU REMEMBER WHEN YOU WAS WORKING-CLASS ALL PLAYING CARDS TOGETHER DOWN THE BOOZER?
It reminds us the pitfalls of the Oral Histories movement of the 70′s and 80′s. Lots of great stories of working people’s lives and stories that would not have been recorded otherwise but often so uselessly devoid of talking about the context to these stories. So often, tales of hard work in the jam factories or in the wharves would be as simple as ‘oh, we all loved working together, there was real camaraderie, everyone got along..‘ etc. No real sense of questioning hardship, poverty, struggle to maintain wages, conditions, health, sanity etc. But these last struggles are what made the communities of North Southwark so strong. Where are the community art projects on the 1911 Bermondsey General Strike or the numerous strikes in Surrey Docks over the years? The defeat of Mosley and the British Union of Fascists at Long Lane in 1937? The rout of the National Front on Walworth Rd in 1980? On the resistance to the LDDC at Cherry Gardens in the late 80′s? On the Southwark Anti-Poll Tax Unions of 1990? It’s not that all art has to be political, of course, how boring that would be but that something contextual needs to be present at least to even understand how communities are formed, what cultures exist within them, what messy problems and contradictions are fought over in these cultural histories and then, more pointedly, what powers break these often different and overlapping communities up again?
We would then point out that using such local material as described above (cockney songs, local ethnic recipes, pie + mash etc etc), taking out of a common pot as we would call it, and then using this to enhance your socially-engaged CV and onto the next community project in Lancaster, Macclesfield, Margate does not necessarily put anything back into that common pot especially if you are doing some of the work of destroying the pot in the future. Problematically, you, ‘the artist’, become the sole owner of such common tales and stories as represented by the ‘Such and Such Community Project, 2012‘ on your updated CV. Artists flit from regeneration site to regeneration site the same as regeneration managers, all following the same gravy.*-)
Martha Rosler, an amazing New York artist and writer, makes this concise point on the turn from ‘public art‘ to ‘social practice‘ as described above. That’s the process when heavy objects are now longer placed on street corners next to new developments but artists now come to your estate or community centre or pub even and bring some kind of touchy-feely art ‘experience‘ to your front door:
‘The emphasis on personal qualities and social networks will most likely give rise to projects that centre on the affective. (Such) baby steps in the formation of community initiatives are treated as deserving of the moral (and professional) equivalent of merit badges, for a generation raised on images and virtual communication and lacking a sufficient grasp of the sustained commitment required for community immersion. These projects can capture the attention of journalists and municipal authorities, all speaking the same language and operating against a backdrop of shared class understandings. But it renders invisible the patient organising and agitating, often decades long, by members of the local communities‘.
THE PECKHAM EXPERIMENT: The Empire Strikes Back!
This is not to say that what happens within these projects is not enjoyed by the people who take part in them and that often the artists are well-meaning but this is not the point for us. If we are to be critical and aware of the processes of gentrification than we must include the strategic use of art by local government and developers to enhance an area. Peckham has seen a very strong artistic colonisation in the last five years (much more so than The Elephant) with galleries, shows, special events, artists collectives and lots of gushing pieces in the media heralding this all etc. But this is not some random thing from nowhere. There was a big component within the Peckham Partnership regeneration scheme for art to be used to rebrand Peckham as a place you would want to live in. You can read a little bit about this in this report ‘ADDING VALUE AND A COMPETITIVE EDGE: The Business Case For Using The Arts in Town Centres and Business Improvement Districts‘:
Making retail environments safer and more attractive to consumers:
Investing in the arts offers a wide range of opportunities that can improve the retail environment and surrounding town areas both physically and socially, including:
- Enhancement of the built environment through installation of art in public places;
- Involvement of artists to encourage community involvement in regeneration or enhancement of public spaces in order to manifest local distinctiveness and create a sense of place;
- The involvement of an artist in town and neighbourhood planning to work alongside architects and developers to introduce creative design solutions and spaces which relate meaningfully to their heritage and surrounding environments;
- Increase access and encourage volunteering to build audiences and encourage participation in artistic activities.
That Peckham Partnership’s building partner Countryside Properties can boast ‘One of the most important achievements for the project was creating and developing a housing for sale market where previously none whatsoever existed. Countryside’s commitment to carry out the first housing for sale in the area, eventually totalling 600 new homes, was very successful not only in creating the demand for housing for sale on the former Five Estates, but also throughout the surrounding area’ says it all really!
The Guardian’s Let’s Move To Peckham from September 2011 says it all really from an aspiring homeowner’s point of view. You can always rely on the Guardian to be brutally coded about what they mean. After the artists have sanitised some parts of the area, the homeowners can safely move in. We added in sone decoding for you just in case…
Good Points: ‘I Heart Peckham, said the well-wishing Post-it notes on Rye Lane after the riots. Yes, people love Peckham. And why not? True, it still has its tricky patches (poor people), fried chicken joints (poor people’s food), and the high street ain’t all that (poor people’s shops). But it’s got another side: adorable streets (Bellenden Rd, of course!) and a sturdy, hard-to-faze community. The close proximity of art schools in Camberwell and New Cross has brought in a new breed: the arties, and not far behind, the aspirant middle classes, not seen around these parts for some time. Followed, in turn, by pop-up bars and, now, dinky delis serving grilled artichokes. You can see why!“
Bad Points: ‘Give it five years and it’ll be like Clapham“. Thus full of upmarket chain restaurants, coffee-shops and independent boutiques and some silly people acting all bohemian. So although it’s great to move to Peckham because of all the arties and the good foodie stuff, by doing this you will cause the area to turn into somewhere the same as every other gentrified high street.
Where to buy: ‘It’s all Bellenden Road and the surrounding neighbourhood – large Victorian terraces and town houses, plus the odd scrap of (now) cutesy artisan cottages, such as Choumert Square‘. This sits cheek by jowl with what we said above about how Bellenden Rd Renewal Strategy used arts to make the first safe zone in Peckham.
‘When we met Elaine in March of this year at Moncrieff Place she was campaigning against a public art project that Southwark Council was using to evict her from the space her business had occupied for over 14 years. Her campaigning methods, combining direct action with site specific intervention in the space, looked to us like an art that is public should be like, bringing the question of democracy into the urban aesthetic debate…Moncrieff Place is a small plaza in Peckham Rye, which is the main shopping street. In the planner’s words, “Moncrieff Place contains the town centre cinema and is one of the main access points from the car park to the town centre, it is a strategic gateway in the town centre’s development, without it the town centre does not exist.” The street is noted for its mix of high street retailers, and small street markets. It is a mixed area, with many immigrants in a predominantly black neighbourhood. Until now the market traders were licensed to use the site and there are usually two stalls at the entrance to Moncrieff Place.’
The account of the artists colony at Butler’s Wharf in the 1970′s is salutory:
‘The Butlers Wharf story charts the classic case of artists as pioneers who find low-cost studio space in neglected inner city areas, move in, preserve and renovate causing rejuvenation within a few years, thus drawing attention to the area and ‘lifestyle’ possibilities, ultimately being forced out by the property market’.
See here: Download - ARTISTS AT BUTLERS WHARF STORY
SOME LOCAL ARTY HAPPENINGS…
December 2010: These posters were recently put up on four sites (that we counted) – Strata, Oakmayne Plaza, 360 London and the Walworth Rd site opp Heygate. We can’t say we’ve seen any other local ‘artistic’ endeavours that place a critical voice in the area. Anyhow, we liked ‘em.
June 2011: On a quick walk around the place when we were looking at the newly erected metal fences blocking the way from the footbridge over New Kent Rd into Heygate, we saw a lot of new posters all over the place. Obviously part of the same series as the ones from last year, these ones featuring the demolition of the Heygate Estate and the notion of a ‘Blitz’ and the ‘exile’ forced upon the local tenants, now removed! Nice one, you arty types!
A RASH OF ART COMING AND GOING AND COMING AGAIN…
NB: We list below artistic projects and so on that we come across in the North Southwark area although this list is by no means exhaustive. Some times we go and check out the shows and projects and have a chat with the artists which is sometimes nice and sometimes not so nice. It would be silly to insist or labour the points between the gentrification of the area and these specific projects because the situation is much more complex and contradictory than that. So we refrain from being too personal about it all even if some projects and project funders are based on an implicit regeneration agenda. With this in mind we have chosen to mainly use what the artists or projects are saying about themselves and to post up links so that people can explore the works further.
* A Ritual For The Elephant & Vision Quest (June 2009 and ongoing)
‘Vision Quest by visual artist and filmmaker Marcus Coates, commissioned & produced by Nomad. Vision Quest is a feature length documentary set in the South London neighbourhood of Elephant & Castle. The film documents Marcus Coates’ personal journey over a two-year residency period in the neighbourhood‘.
The Vision Quest documentary is now done and was shown in the Shopping Centre in April 2012. Allegedly it follows Coates as he “endeavours to locate animal spirits to guide a community experiencing a disruptive redevelopment scheme“. For this “unlikely urban adventure, a group of residents from the iconic Heygate Estate, local politicians from Southwark Council and the psychedelic doom rock orchestra Chrome Hoof, collectively embark on a journey into the depths of neighbourhood, presenting an alternative, inventive and entertaining approach to dealing with contemporary social issues, such as gentrification & the economic crisis“. Charmingly The Heygate is described thus: “Completed in 1974, the Heygate’s generously sized flats were initially popular with council tenants, but the estate gradually struggled with a reputation for violence and deprivation during the Thatcher era. Today, the estate is 99% vacated, save for a small number of leaseholders. It presently awaits demolition.” A partial potted history that asks no critical questions in it’s description. Seeing as the Thatcher era end in 1997, we wonder what was happening on The Estate in the years 1997 to 2012? Also ‘vacated‘ is a very polite description of the decant and it’s humiliations.
You can watch Marcus Coates previous video from a regeneration site in Liverpool where he goes on a vision quest to answer some local tenants questions about their own decant here. Warning contains scenes of vacuuming the carpet!
APRIL 2012: We saw the film and can only suggest that urban shamans at Soundings consultants have been providing a better Ritual For The Elephant in their series of entirely ritualistic consultation forum meetings. The film itself, which took three years to make and ‘involves residents‘ comes over as a bit of yawn in the end as it runs out of steam after almost building something up. Only one resident appears on the screen as having any real engagement with Coates but then is only really a somewhat polite and bemused participant. It’s hard to see how this could be described as ‘collectively embark(ing) on a journey into the depths of the neighbourhood”. A local man turned property developer or development consultant who talks in all seriousness about ‘Neo-London‘ has more South London chutzpah with Coates and at least manages to take time away from the artist relentless self on the silver screen. The officers at the Council regeneration dept seems about as full of life as the stuffed horses head Coates wears to do his ‘shamanic‘ visioning. Along the way, some colourful working class characters are thrown into the mix as is usual and normal in these kind of things – Jamaicans playing dominoes, local boy with his big salivating dog etc. In the end the footage from the Chrome Hoof Ritual For The Elephant gig is intercut in a rapid noisy sequence with footage from the Heygate Phase One demolition. Marcus trills like a bird in the ruins, and then we hear the ‘vision‘ Marcus has brought from the underworld of apathetic seals on the horizon and birds making little nests under his armpits. Is this an analogy for bad developers and poor local people needing nests? Expecting more at this point we were surprised when the credits suddenly came up.
It’s all so wacky and insubstantial as to leave you wondering how artists can occupy such privileged positions these days? They seem to ask to be taken seriously even as they serve up any old nonsense and guff. It’s all covered by the tag ‘art’ anyhow as if ‘art’ means that it’s all okay, it’s all good. If artists seem a bit self-confidently out of the depth than not to worry as the usual wackiness covers up any real political antagonism or need to actually engage with local people who come over as sad and resigned to the regeneration rollercoaster. Some people take artists seriously though – the Arts Council in this instance who stumped up some cash for it. Marcus is now off to Norway on another residency. And so it goes on.
Worth pointing out that the Elephant Amenity Network held it’s own Community Visioning event in June 2011 as an attempt to gather local people’s ideas, knowledge and desires for their area. This is the kind of vision we want to see more of.
* The Elephant Rooms (30th July – 2nd August 2009)
‘The Elephant Rooms is a new transient art space which will pop-up at different locations throughout The Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre bringing art into vacant shops made available by St. Modwen, regeneration specialist and owners of the iconic building’.
Abysmal group show co-ordinated by typical art sort talking a lot about ‘the community‘ but not really understanding even which communities make up the local area.
* South Tower Social (14th January – March 10th 2010)
“Three artists converting the former Mayfair Carpet Gallery at 301-303 Borough High Street into a temporary project space and contemporary art gallery, exhibiting a number of young and emerging London artists and curators, as well as groups who are local to Southwark and surrounding South London”
* Twenty for Harper Rd (2nd April – 3rd May 2010)
“Twenty For Harper Road was a temporary creative project space operating out of a disused travel- agents in Southwark. It ran throughout April 2010 and provided free workshops and activities in the space for young people. The project was run by Raw Canvas the young peoples collective at the Tate Modern”
* Flee at Corsica Studios (new-ish arty crafty market thing hosted by Corsica Studios). Southwark Notes went but we chose to flee!
Pictured is Public Recipe, a project by Eleanor Shipman: “This Sunday I continued my workshop Public Recipe at Flee at Corsica Studios. These recipes I am collating into a project as part of Lucy Harrison’s Tate Modern commission and will be displayed as public notice signs around the Heygate estate.“|
Lucy Harrison writes ‘I’m delighted to be working at Pembroke House in Walworth this year, for Tate Modern’s Community and Regeneration team. I’m going to be producing the next issue of the newsletter Tate Modern and You, which is usually distributed in the area nearest to the Tate, but this time is extending its area to Walworth as well‘.
* Displaced - ‘an empty/banned/disused rooftop is appropriated /overthrown / altered for a day – Featuring work from second-year Interaction and Moving Image pathway of the London College of Communications BA Graphic and Media Design. 9th June 2011 – Kipling Estate, Weston Street, Borough SE1‘. From the Leathermarket Estates Joint Management Board site – “For one night, they will be ‘reclaiming’ the rooftop children’s play area above the garages between the tower blocks of Simla House and Burwash House. The theme of the exhibition is about reclaiming public space. In this case the children’s play area was closed off 30 years ago . The artists blurb for the event says “our intention was the bring the community together to meet, talk and play in a common space“. Displaced video here – all the usual concreteness going on! A longer video that shows the working out and the event itself here. Pics of the art here.
The LCC’s Design for Interactive and Moving Image had previously been active on the empty flats on Harper Rd where Roger Hiorns Seizure was: “Situated in the courtyard and several flats of a now demolished council estate, students, consulting with local/former residents and schools curated an exhibition exploring the nature of community, identity and local history“.
The LCC occupies a funny position within any potential regeneration of The Elephant. Some leaseholders on Heygate Estate has already been critical of other LCC student projects that focused on Heygate that they felt were too intertwined with the Council PR spin on how horrible the estate was and why it needed to be knocked down. You can read their account here. The LCC, as a major college in the area, like others (South Bank University) operates as an institution that owns large amounts of real estate - the land they sit on or the ownership of many properties in the local area. The LCC is already considering it’s own regeneration that factors in, of course, residential properties, colleges and universities increasingly becoming more about investment and profits than educating young and not so young people.
May 2012: Graham Gussin’s installation ‘Illumination Rig’ at the still empty 360 London site on Churchyard Row as part of a commission and tie-in to his show at the nearby Siobhan Davies dance studios on St George’s Rd. Lots of big film industry lights and some mirrors “as a way of painting directly onto a landscape“. The blurb highlights how “Illumination Rig will reflect the fast changing landscape of Elephant & Castle..”. We laughed then at the irony of putting this on the 360 London site which despite planning permission and demolition of the wonderful old Rowton House (and then the London Park Hotel) remains a site of massively slow non-activity since 2007! The work has previously been shown in Reculver, Newcastle, the United Arab Emirates and also for the opening of large new Turner Contemporary museum in the gentrified harbourside ‘cultural quarter’ (ahem!) of Margate.
THE HEYGATE AS SAFARI and other local funnies…
Typing ‘Heygate Estate Ruins’ into Google images will give you about a trillion photos of ‘urban decay’ and ‘poetic ruins’, no doubt. Since all those funny tenant people were chucked out, the Heygate has become the home to a new and exciting urban safari where you can walk the ruins and snap away to your hearts content, taking a few edgy angles of the brutal concrete and the abandoned trash in the now empty gardens. Southwark Notes gave up leaving comments on all the blogs with these photos on where the first few lines always say “The Heygate, an infamous estate now awaiting regeneration…” and so on. We even heard one guy say ‘I never used to go into there at all when people lived there but now I have been going in and with all the trees and the quiet and, you know, it’s a really exciting place...’. Nice one, dude! It’s not the first expression of something similar from artists and photographers we have spoken too on encountering them on Heygate.
PAINT THE HEYGATE! NO THANKS:
Some wacky artist / designer types were running around various Council bods and other creative movers and shakers with a bad idea to ‘Paint The Heygate’ last year (2009). The plan was for local people to involve themselves with famous ‘street’ artists and to paint the Heygate just before it was demolished with a load of graffiti art and all that. Using the clueless slogan ‘Bringing The Community Together, Many People, One Goal‘, they obviously failed to notice that the community was actually being dissolved and dispossesed of itself before their very eyes. The fact that their blog can’t even get the names of the Heygate blocks right nor do they even know that the Community Council they pitched it at was in Walworth and not ‘Wandsworth’ says it all really. Elsewhere someone the artists met a conference blogs about ‘a recruitment drive to get people to take part in the largest community arts project in the world – painting the Heygate Estate in Hackney‘. Hackney, where dat?
THIS PAGE CURATED BY SOUTHWARK NOTES …*-)
Hard to explain Southwark Notes aversion to most artists. Would take a long chat. Just put us down as cranky for this page (which we seem to be expanding day by day until it’s a monster out of control….arrgghhh!!!) *-)