Originally published in (H)Art, April 2009.
We stand in a loose circle on a bridge over the busy A12 in East London. A man with beard and fraying overcoat walks to the centre, anger or mischief in his narrowed eyes. “They never had us in mind,” he growls. “They never had us in mind.” As the cars rush by beneath us, we must strain to hear these words. The circle tightens. Three times he pours Special Brew onto the ground. There is something solemn, intimidating and faintly ridiculous about this performance. Everyone is captivated.
The following weekend I find myself among the London art and literary elite at the launch of Iain Sinclair’s new book, ‘Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire’, a psychogeographic history of the London Borough of Hackney. Oddly this event does not take place, as you might expect, in one of the many libraries, bookshops or galleries in Hackney, but rather in a gallery called Danielle Arnaud Contemporary Art in Vauxhall, South London. But why? And what do these two events have in common? One thing: the 2012 Olympics. Amid much controversy, Hackney Borough Council banned the launch of ‘Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire’ from local libraries, because it is apparently critical of 2012 and the impact it is likely to have on the local area. That is why the launch is forced to take place in Vauxhall.
Back on the bridge, and the man with the Special Brew is local East London sculptor, writer and performer Robin Bale. His performance is an invocation to Papa Legba, the Voodoo intermediary between the mortal and immortal worlds. We are all here, about 40 of us, to take part in a ‘drift walk’ organised by another local Hackney artist Laura Oldfield Ford. The aim is to understand the real impact that the Olympics are likely to have on those who live in this area.
The line put forward by those in charge of 2012 is that this area – Stratford, Hackney Wick and the Lower Lea Valley – is a wasteland, a blank zone of nothingness simply awaiting redevelopment. Such interpretations are easy when all you see are Impact Studies and speculative academic documents. And such interpretations are ridiculed by art/activism collectives like ‘We Are Bad’ whose slogan “We are bad, 2012 make us better” exposes the simplicity of this kind of corporate thinking.
After solo shows at Marlborough Fine Art in 2008 and Hales Gallery in 2009, Laura Oldfield Ford is one of the leading lights in the East London art scene. A member of We Are Bad, Oldfield Ford not only produces cult local psychogeographic ‘zine ‘Savage Messiah’, but also does painstakingly detailed paintings and drawings that imagine a nightmarish post-2012 urban landscape. Disaffected youths, abandoned TV sets and assorted detritus fill her works with a sense of transience and alienation.
Over the course of the drift walk we come to understand, with Oldfield Ford, that there is a discrepancy between pie charts and reality. Right now, cheap studio space means that Hackney Wick is no wasteland: rather it is home to a thriving art scene. Established names like Gavin Turk, Bridget Riley and Jake and Dinos Chapman have studios in the area. And cutting-edge artists like Laura May Lewis, Stephen Gill, Laura Oldfield Ford, Mark McGowan, Simon Ould, and Gideon Cube Sherman are supported by local establishments such as Decima, the Residence, Schwartz Gallery and Mother Studios.
In 2008, these galleries joined forces to organise Hackney Wicked, “envisioned,” say Decima’s David C West and Alex Chappel, “as a long-lasting community-inclusive arts festival”. I interviewed David and Alex along with Ingrid Z of The Residence back in August 2008 in the run up to Hackney Wicked, as well as attending the festival’s launch night. What stood out then was the sense of excitement. Organisers, artists, local residents and first-time visitors: all were excited by the sense of dynamism, creativity and community. Betony May presented an interactive Moustache Booth, Laura May Lewis produced a massive Hollywood-style ‘Hackney Wick’ sign, and the Residence did a kind of alternative history of Hackney Wick with an exhibition entitled ‘Museum of Revised History’. Hackney Wick felt like an area where anything could happen.
And yet only a year later rising rents mean artists are being forced out and galleries are beginning to close. Already the warehouse that contained Ed Fornieles’ Wallis Gallery has been demolished to make way for the 2012 Media Centre. And they’re not the only ones: the Residence is scheduled to be pulled down in 2010, and Decima, who only opened in Bow in 2008, are also planning to move out. Now the Hackney Wicked festival is itself threatened by what Chappel calls “the most hypocritical kind of cynical profiteering, exploitation and opportunism”.
What does he mean by this? Well, local business properties have been subject to compulsory purchase orders: Tyrone Textiles, for example – a family-run curtain manufacturer – have been forced to vacate after 17 years in Stratford. Companies involved in building facilities for the Olympics have been subjected to gagging orders so oppressive as to be described as “draconian” by the BBC. In addition, the historic Manor Garden Allotments and Clays Lane housing estate have both been demolished. This latter destruction was strongly opposed by tenants, some of whom have lived there since the late 1970s. But to no avail.
I spoke to Stewart Schwartz, who owns large areas of Hackney Wick, and although the price of his properties has risen dramatically, he’s still not best pleased. Schwartz has run printing companies in the area since the 1970s but Olympic activities have blocked the roads at Lea Bridge and these companies have had to move out. “Hackney Wick used to be a hive of the printing industry, with a lot of businesses relying on each other”, he says, “but thanks to the Olympics, this is no longer the case.”
It is the destruction of any sense of community that worries and angers everyone: long-term residents, artists, and land-owners alike. Stewart Home – a conceptual artist, writer and activist – moved to nearby Bethnal Green in 1985, but now bemoans “the way all the pubs have disappeared along with any sense of community”. The Lea Tavern on White Post Lane has already been knocked down to make way for a café and sports shop. David C West regrets the loss of “an historic building”. “No thought has been put into retaining the natural beauty of the area,” he adds.
Of course, gentrification is often inevitable: as Home puts it, “places always change – you can’t leave them the same”. One need only look down the road to Shoreditch to see the pattern that takes place: artists move into a poor area because of cheap studio space and they set up galleries to show their work, then comes the fashion crowd, then the developers, and then the corporations and the bankers. But in this case, people are worried about the sheer speed and totality of this process, and there’s a well-justified fear about what is going to happen when the Olympic circus is over. As Oldfield Ford sees it, “so much of urban master-planning seems to be about erasing the histories and memories of an area”.
Back to the beginning, and there is one other thing that links the banning of Iain Sinclair’s book with my walk around the Olympic building site: psychogeography. Psychogeography was originally developed in the 1950s by the Lettrist International as, in the words of Guy Debord, “the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organised or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals.” In London, the concept is now undergoing something of a renaissance.
Iain Sinclair’s ‘London Orbital’ – the 2002 book that documented various walks the author undertook around the M25 – is probably the most well-known recent example, but psychogeography is a tool with increasing relevance again. Our walk is part of what is called a ‘dérive’ in psychogeographic/Situationist parlance. Oldfield Ford describes the process like this: “Sometimes I go out on walks with people using obsolete maps to show how much public space has been enclosed, eroded or gated off. I think it is important to coax out the hidden histories in an area, to allow the repressed voices of the city to reverberate and to say that this is not the only way.”
Stewart Home – one of the UK’s earliest exponents of psychogeography – worries that it is simply “a term taken on by columnists at The Independent, and has become rather meaningless now”. “There’s fine line between psychogeography and tourism,” he adds. Certainly there is something a little akin to the guided tour about our ‘dérive’. But Oldfield Ford counters by saying that, “for me, the term can’t be used unless there is an inherent critique of urban planning and architecture”. Bale’s bile-ridden bridge performance – he describes the 2012 site as “a bloated desolation” – is just such a critique.
East London is currently a hive of such acts of memory, documentation and resistance. Several artists have made it their mission to document the area and its occupants before it changes for ever. Frank Creber paints the energy and diversity of Bromley by Bow, Stratford City, Blackwall and Bow Creek, whilst Alan Williams does portraits and interviews with local residents, many of whose lives are being destroyed by 2012. Artists like Home and Oldfield Ford offer resistance in the form of subversion, whilst groups such as Space Jackers have acted more directly by, in 2008, driving an armoured personal carrier through the streets of East London, bearing flags emblazoned with ‘Free Hackney’. Photographer Stephen Gill has been documenting the fascinating minutiae of the area for years. He provides neither commentary nor judgement, but instead offers up a documentary archive that is both less and far more powerful for its lack of agenda.
Such local acts of documentation and resistance are a start, a way to preserve the traces of local history. Oldfield Ford predicts that, when the athletes and the sponsors move out, the area can become “interesting again, as nature asserts itself and London’s waywardness creeps back in”. The germ of subversion lies deep in this area, and besides, oppression always engenders dissent. Yes, they never had us in mind, but artists have a way of always coming back. Even 2012 cannot bulldoze that.