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Toynbee Hall and other venues in East London, London
4 - 6 November 2009
Reviewed by: Lawrence Bradby »
‘We’re in the era of the grand narrative. Places have to explain themselves.’
Norwich, like anywhere, has its regeneration zone. For the last five years the former flour mill, factories and warehouses beside the river have been future homes. As citizens of Norwich we’ve been reading the developers’ hoardings and their adverts: STUNNING NEW APARTMENTS – UNIQUE RIVERSIDE DWELLINGS – UNMISSABLE INVESTMENT OPPORTUNITY – SEE LIFE FROM ABOVE. Judging by the physical appearance of these flats, the developers’ statements are misleading. More accurate descriptions would be: new, expensive, close to the station, built in accordance with contemporary building standards, often incorporating exterior wood, always offering gated basement parking. If, however, the new flats are seen as a stage in a long process – acquiring land, gathering finance, winning over the planning authorities, engaging contractors, selling – then the developers’ advertising slogans are not cynical rhetoric or post-hoc descriptions, they are the driving force of the project. They are generative spells. They predate the new dwellings, and it is the bricks and mortar which are the flimsy covering held up by the slogans, not vice versa.
I would like to consider the ways in which developers and artists, curators and architects, share an approach to generative language. The way in which certain types of projects come into being through language and social interaction, are talked into life, are the product of rhetoric. Maybe the claims made for a project should be judged against the aspirations of the organisers, rather than against the experiences of the participants. I would also like to raise the question of such projects, conceived in and constructed from language, can transcend language later in their development.
For visual artists, it is often assumed that language follows the work, supports it after its creation. Words are necessary to lead the work out into the world, to sell it to viewers or curators, but, like fathers in 1950’s maternity wards, words are kept to one side during the actual birth.
Writer and East End resident Iain Sinclair opened the first full day of the conference with an elusive and evocative ramble through his London. This idiosyncratic history included a section on the ideal of the artist working alone, 'in his studio, wrestling with his demons.' (The artist in question was Frank Auerbach, but Sinclair was using him as a mythic ideal more than as a subject for biography.)
The language supporting visual art takes a range of forms. One form is the artist's own post-hoc claim for a piece of work. This can be based on the false assumption that the work ‘needs some kind of proper explanation’ as artist and curator Mark Wilshire puts it. He goes on to say ‘Quite often it is exactly that aspect of the object that is interesting that resists being put into words. Or rather, a theoretical explanation can point us in the right direction but importantly falls short of a complete translation into the register of the rational.’ (1) Another form of supporting language is the definitive closure of the artwork’s marketing. In this art-literary form artworks do not bear upon us in a physical or perceptual way, instead they are made to address us with clear, comprehensible questions; they are always 'prompting us to reconsider the relationship between …’, or ‘drawing our attention to …’ or ‘prompting us to question the significance of …’ (2)
While these criticisms of art trying to mean-something-in-words are valid, do they apply to artists working in regeneration areas? The projects and artworks that most people at Future Perfect wanted to discuss were a long way from Sinclair's lone male artist. The work under discussion was, not surprisingly, site-specific, responding in some way to urban redevelopment, engaging with people who work or live in areas undergoing big changes. Although this work is sometimes overtly political (such as Minerva Cuevas’s S-COOP, for Whitechapel Gallery’s ‘The Street’ outreach project), there is no sense of a prevailing position being taken on urban regeneration, or of an emerging manifesto. Instead the artwork being made seems to share a constellation of techniques, the most important of which is the use of conversation and cooperation (or co-option, anyway).
Working in this way means establishing relationships. It takes time, and a measure generosity. In Miwon Kwon’s terms, the site is no longer necessarily or exclusively a location, it is a ‘discursively determined site that is delineated as a field of knowledge, intellectual exchange, or cultural debate.’ (3) And such a site can only be understood, perceived, arrived at, through conversation and relationship building. At the Thursday afternoon session of the conference, titled ‘How Do You Keep It Going?’ artist-curator Kerstin Bergendal talked about her project New Art for New Urban Areas – Art Plan Trekroner, which, when it finishes will have taken 12 years. Through this ‘long duration engagement’ Bergendal intends to combine permanent and transient artworks as complement to daily life for a newly developing suburb.
Bergendal's tactic seems to be to stay close to the project, embedded in the planning process and available, on site, to talk to the residents: ‘In all the time at Trekroner I don't have an office, a phone, a secretary. I just have myself and my time. While I'm there all the collaborators [residents, planners, builders] can dream about the projects we can do together. I catch those dreams and make them real.’ Yet she also described the importance of keeping her distance, being separate from the professionals. This enabled her to question protocol, to find space within the regulations, or to suggest alternatives that would be harder for a professional to see. Paul Domela (Programme Director of Liverpool Biennial), chairing the session, later described this as 'finding play in the system' both in the sense of ‘being playful’ and also of ‘finding unintended lateral movement.’
same&different was not discussed at the conference but has many similarities to New Art for New Urban Areas. Conceived by artist Kirsten Lavers, and drawing in the residents of Orchard Park, a large new mixed-use (residential and business) development in North Cambridge, same&different has been running since the first houses were being occupied. Lavers describes her project as being ‘continuously “under construction”’ and Orchard Park as ‘a place of recurring introductions; new buildings, new views, new neighbours, new homes and eventually a new community.’ (4)
The writer Miwon Kwon describes a curious reversal, wherein ‘the presence of the artist has become an absolute prerequisite for the execution/presentation of site-orientated projects. It is now the performative aspect of an artist’s characteristic mode of operation (even when working in collaboration) that is repeated and circulated as a new art commodity.’ (5) The presence of Bergendal and Lavers in their respective communities seems to be less that of an artist validating the things that happen as art, and more that of catalyst allowing things, art or not, to happen. And that process of catalysis occurs by talking. The greetings, the introductions, the invitations to people to step outside their normal remit, are what lead to physical, as well as social changes in the surroundings.
Iain Sinclair also touched on the way that narrative generates urban change. He described observing Victorian houses in the East End as they were renovated and sold on as desirable properties. Several copies of Peter Akroyd’s novel Hawksmoor would always be stacked on the mantelpiece prior to sale. (Hawksmoor was the architect of several prominent East End churches; the novel was inspired by Sinclair’s own long poem Lud Heat.) Sinclair said, of this novel sales tool, ‘We’re in the era of the grand narrative. Places have to explain themselves. For developers, it’s so exciting to have a past, to have a legend. Something that can be reduced to a short paragraph and put up on a plaque on the wall.’
Continued in Part 2 of review.
All quotes that are not referenced to a particular publication are taken from presentations or discussions during the Engage conference.
1. Wilshire, M., (2005) ‘Against Explanation: the gentle art of avoiding answers’, Art Monthly, no.286.
2. Examples taken from leaflet for Pop Will Eat Itself, group show by Art on the Underground, at Piccadilly Circus Underground Station, June – September, 2009.
3. Kwon, M., One Place After Another (2002) p.26.
4. www.sameanddifferent.net, last accessed 16.11.09.
Lawrence Bradby is an artist and writer. He works as half of the collaborative artist duo Townley and Bradby making interventions, performance walks and artists' books. His lastest publication, Mechanical Operations in Cambourne (Marmalade Publishers), is a bookwork with artist and architect Helen Stratford.
Toynbee Hall and other venues in East London »
Toynbee Hall, 28 Commercial Street, London, E1 6LS
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