FALL OF THE GREAT HEYGATE PYRAMID
Today is the longest day of the year but it witnesses the shortest campaign in Southwark for a long time. Dismay, outrage, scorn and disbelief had greeted the art commissioner’s Artangel’s plans to build a pyramid from the material structure of one of the now empty blocks on Heygate Estate. Artangel were working with ‘famous’ artist Mike Nelson to bring this public art to the finally emptied and fenced off Heygate Estate. They had been searching for a site for nearly three years and were looking for a post-war site of some social significance that was in a transitory moment. After some false starts, they thought they had there dream ticket to art success when they found Heygate. The Council seemed up for it and also Lend Lease (kind of).
As soon as this idea was made public there was a quick response to it on various websites and networking places roundly condemning Artangel’s ignorance and insensitivity in thinking that the Heygate site was a good site for a monumental piece of ‘public art’. We ourselves at Southwark Notes were pretty furious at the plan and contacted Artangel with a long letter outlining our dismay at their project (see below). We even met up with Artangel at a cafe in the Shopping Centre and spent an hour and a half politely but firmly pointing out how live, raw and pointed the decant and the subsequent social cleansing of that site remains.
We also spoke of how local people had been arguing and also putting into practice temporary community benefits on the site regardless of Council threats and occasional police hassle. What made Artangel so special that after the Council had finally cleared the site that they could then have access for a monstrous spectacle? Not only this but what gave them the privileged position to invite an art audience into the site of one of the most poorly executed decant programmes in housing history and a site of massive gentrification? In the end, despite our offers to put Artangel in touch personally with the numerous housing and amenity campaigns active locally in The Elephant, they chose to go for planning permission and tough it out. After some prompting they finally sent us a weakly argued letter of justification that brushed all our concerns to one side entirely. That was the red rag really.
COUNCIL STUFFS THE GREAT HEYGATE PYRAMID SIDEWAYS
To cut this longish story short, in the last few weeks, the growing opposition to the Artangel Heygate Pyramid was becoming more public especially when The Guardian published a great article on local people’s feeling of betrayal and outrage. There was also a good Open Letter To Artangel published late last week. There was also the new Twitter site Artangel Go Home: Pyramid A Go Go that was ramping up opposition slowly. Anyhow, by Friday 20th December, the Council pulled the plan and sent the Pyramid packing. This was a shrewd move as at Southwark Notes we know there was a large and international campaign being established by all sorts of ex-Heygate residents, housing groups, academics, artists and local people that was feverishly but quietly being worked on to launch in the New Year. Now those people can have a bit more of a chilled New Year and enjoy the non-Pyramid.
At Southwark Notes mansions, we presume that the Council had started to see that they were staring into an abyss of a massive negative publicity drive where the Pyramid project would only be the starting point for a load of facts, truths, personal histories about the Heygate and the Elephant regeneration to come again to public attention. Maybe they realised that nothing that good could really come out of the Pyramid and that any hopes they had of using such a prestigious public art piece by Artangel as a PR puff for the regeneration scheme were never going to be realised under these circumstances. Maybe even Lend Lease were on the blower to Tooley St. We just don’t know the real story yet. If you do, then drop us a line at our email address: firstname.lastname@example.org
PYRAMID SENT PACKING
It was Artangel who actually let the cat out of the bag when they somewhat discretely but pointedly released a terse Press Statement on their website on Friday 2oth Dec:
ARTANGEL Statement on Southwark Council’s decision regarding Mike Nelson’s proposed project on the Heygate Estate
20 December 2013
“Artangel’s proposal for a major new artwork by Turner Prize nominee Mike Nelson on the Heygate Estate is a thoughtfully conceived project that would have created a powerful and challenging free public artwork.
London is one of the world’s great cultural centres with a long history of presenting elegaic and thought-provoking public sculptures – from Edwin Lutyens’ Cenotaph to Rachel Whiteread’s House, produced by Artangel 20 years ago.
Over the past few months, we have had productive conversations with Southwark councillors, officers, and different interest groups in the borough. We are very disappointed by Southwark Council’s decision to stop Mike Nelson’s proposal progressing. We feel a great opportunity has been lost.”
Artangel Co-Directors James Lingwood and Michael Morris
We were somewhat surprised when we came across this today almost by accident. Still, ‘result’ as we might say. Well done to all who were working on spreading the discontent and the intent to not let this pyramid pish be built. Of course, this is small fare considering how few battles have been won against the regeneration / gentrification of the North Southwark area. But it does stand as a useful reference point for what can be done and how when people started talking to each other and then get inspired to act together. It is also a testament to the power of refusal rather than polite dialogues. Many many people were adamant that this dodgy Pyramid scheme should not be allowed to happen at all. It was simply a case of not accepting Art’s liberal plea that art is ‘thought-provoking’. Whose thoughts? Whose provocation? As ex-Heygate resident John Colfer said in The Guardian piece: ‘We were the first people in, at the start of 1974. My father made the home a home, fitted new floors, everything. My parents never planned to leave the estate. So when you’re talking about using those same materials to make a pyramid, you just think: what is there to show that this was a well-loved home? These are our memories being turned into an artwork.”
Artangel say ‘We feel a great opportunity has been lost‘. Opportunity really for who? That is a very interesting question.
We feel obliged to post here our entire communications to Artangel. It contains our letter that caused them to meet with us, their eventual reply and a short series of back and forths going nowhere:
We have a lot more to say on this matter but it’s Xmas and we have better things to do right now than write all that stuff up. We are sure you can wait if you are interested. Well done all! Forward to the mince pies and some sherry in celebration!