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
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.
– 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.
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.
– 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.
– 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.
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.
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.