Look At The (E)state We’re In is a two day event exploring the phenomena of art on social housing estates, led by Patricia Ellis and Jordan McKenzie and produced by students (including Damaris Dresser and Aveen Lennon) from University of the Arts London in partnership with Peckham Platform. It will include discussion panels, exhibitions, live art projects and work shops. Here, two of the participating artists – Barby Asante and Laura Oldfield Ford join McKenzie and Dresser to discuss art-power v. gentrification and why ‘the revolution’ will most definitely not b e aspirational.
Damaris Dresser —You all have different approaches to making art in relation to social housing – can you each tell us about what you do?
Barby Asante —I’m interested in play, regeneration, and young people having a voice within their spaces. I organised a project called Noise Summit with South London Gallery and Pelican estate in Peckham in 2014. My ideas for Noise Summit were related to the 2011 riots – how do you capture the voices of young people when they want to dissent from their ‘assigned’ places? A precursor to that is a work I did on Barnfield estate in Plumstead, BF18, where young people from the estate and I made a sci-fi film about their estate being an island invaded by aliens.
In my practice I’m interested in people actually affecting something. And maybe it’s really big for an artist to say they want to effect some kind of change, even if it’s a change in perspective about how you see your place.
Laura Oldfield Ford —My works offer a strident critique of gentrification and social cleansing. Especially over the last decade in the South East, we’ve seen an acceleration of working class areas being closed down. People are being pushed out of zone 1 and 2 to the periphery. The right to buy scheme has been a critical moment in that process and subsequent governments haven’t gone on to build any more council houses. Plus we’ve got this crisis now where new buildings are going up at an increasingly accelerated rate but they’re being sold off shore, not even for buy to let, but buy to invest.
There are recent examples like the New Era estate in Shoreditch where people have organised themselves to resist a hostile takeover from a US company that was going to triple their rent. There’s been the E15 mothers’ campaign in Stratford, which is equally inspiring – people organising themselves to reject this process of class cleansing. What we’re talking about is ‘decanting’: with the housing benefit cap, people are being told, “if you can’t afford market rent here, there’s always Bradford or Hull.”
My work as an artist and writer is as someone that walks around London chronicling these urban spaces, precipitating some action against that process, or offering a resistance to it. I’m making reference to my own experience of living on the Aylesbury estate, while at the same time, trying to discuss the wider sociopolitical implications.
Jordan McKenzie —I live on the Approach estate and I find it really problematic when artists move into spaces and they assume there’s no community there. There is community, and there’s already culture there. But at the same time I’m interested in seeing what more could happen. So from a garage I rented, I opened up a performance space called LUPA (Lock Up Performance Art) and we staged various performances once a month and also sent a newsletter out. It’s a co-existence, rather than an intervention. The estate residents got really into it and really enjoyed it. The reason I think I can do that is because I live there. I’m always worrying about artists helicoptering in and doing stuff and then going again. So for me, it’s just like – well I live there too – so when you talk about community, that includes (fortunately or unfortunately), artists.
LOF — This idea of community is really problematic. I’m thinking of the 2011 uprisings and the way that that almost became a clarifying process and it really exposed the attitudes of what I would call ‘middle-class colonisers’ to areas in London like Hackney and Clapham Junction. The word ‘community’ was evoked after that. We had these dehumanising words banded about like ‘rats’, ‘hoodies’, ‘chavs’, and we had this evocation of this idea of community as exemplified by the ‘broom brigade’ – the most horrific image of the whole thing. They were saying, “This is community.” They’re not. Essentially, through that statement, they’ve just discarded, disowned and dehumanised a whole section of society, of people who have actually been there longer than them.
BA — When I was on the estate, thinking around the idea of playing, this middle-class thing of ‘we’ll have our houses and gardens’ actually restricted playing. The children I was working with had an incredible imagination, except they were told that they didn’t because they had this experience which was supposedly more ‘weird’ and ‘animalistic’ than being brought up with the ‘broom brigade’. Cleaning up the community, bringing in the farmers markets, etc., it’s really this idea of ‘civilising’. Obviously, there are racial tensions. Most of the children that came to play were Vietnamese, African, Caribbean. Not many of the white parents were around encouraging their kids to come and play, but some came.
DD — Laura, where do you think the ideology behind estates failed?
LOF — When ’60s/’70s estates were designed, they were born out of the post-war idea of collectivity, a future that was based on mutual co-operation, but they were doomed to live out their years in the rapacious individualism of the Thatcherites. It was a deliberate policy to starve some estates from investment. If you compare the experience of living on the Heygate in Elephant & Castle to living in the Barbican, for example: both were built around the same time and share a brutalist architecture style, but the experiences are polar opposite. And that’s all down to money.
Having your own council house was something to be proud of, but since the ’80s it’s become a source of shame and embarrassment. You’ve got to own your own house to become a proper grownup member of society.
JM — I’ve always been interested in non-official economies… and antagonism. I have a character that I perform on the estate called Mr Poo-Pourri. He’s this aristocrat who’s hit on hard times and lives in a council flat and misrecognises the estate he’s on for a country estate. So I go around on a hobby horse dressed in full riding gear, regarding my estate – to test how difference in class is negotiated, whether I become absorbed into that or whether I’m alienated from that, and what happens. I’m not working class so I am interested in, if you come from a different position, what happens when you try and negotiate that?
BA — Estates are space for negotiation of different identities. There are these different dialogues about life, aspiration… there are more realistic conversations on estates than in what is now called “Brixton Village”.
LOF — It’s always “a village”! (laughs)
BA — That language is really problematic. There’s Stockwell Park estate – now it has been ‘tidied up’ and called ‘The Junction’. They take all of the language and idea around estates away, sanitise it and make it more appealing to these people who can’t afford to live in the Edwardian house.
JM — In my estate it’s always the hardliners who want the gated communities. The ‘village-ification’ of these places – where it’s always got to be window boxes and farmer’s markets – it’s this idea that urban is bad.
LOF — The reason that the language is particularly damaging, is because it puts the emphasis on the individual. This goes hand-in-hand with the endless prescriptions for anti-depressants and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, where it’s the individual that needs to be fixed. If you’re living in poverty, if you’re struggling, it’s down to you. The inequality in this country has massively intensified in the last few years and that’s totally dispensed with. We’ve got this running elite, this clique from Eton, who’ve inherited all this wealth, and they’ve got the cheek to say to us that we shouldn’t expect something for nothing!
BA — The country needed this incredible workforce [the working class] and these people were/are the people that are building these spaces. That’s wiped out of memory in that very ‘aspirational’ language, that that kind of community isn’t important. It goes back to now, where we’ve got a migrant or immigrant communities coming in and doing this work and are also being demeaned. ‘Aspiration’ is part of that migrant story – you can’t continue to hear the demeaning and you do not want your children to continue to hear that kind of narrative. My family came here and did shitty jobs and got called shitty names and were demeaned on a daily basis. There’s part of that individualism that is really problematic and there’s part of it that’s just like – it’s a constant thing on you – and then you get a situation like in 2011 where people are uprising. And 1981 and 1985. And it’s going to happen again as there’s this constant demeaning of people.
JM — Language is money and class based, and education has quite a bit to do with that as well. There seems to be an awful lot of social engagement going on in Peckham from Camberwell College but there isn’t much going on in Chelsea, which are both part of the University of the Arts London.
LOF — The access to higher education is being barred to people who are growing up in these places. It’s really galling for people to see these privileged people coming in and making art ‘for them’, to engage them, when they have no chance of doing it themselves.
BA — I was working up in Havering and the woman that was assisting me, she said something like, “This is really good. I’d really like to do more of this work in areas like Weybridge,” and I was like, “Why don’t you do it in Weybridge?” She was like, “Weybridge doesn’t need it.” I think Weybridge probably needs it a lot more, as on the reverse, these are the people that get into these jobs and perpetuate a narrative around people they don’t know anything about. These are people that are moving into spaces like Hackney and Brixton and deciding that it’s like this, when in fact it might actually be quite different. So I think it’s a really interesting thing that the focus is always concentrated on ‘giving something’ to the ‘disadvantaged’. Arts commissioning is interesting in that there’s always this idea of promoting wellbeing and being good to people on estates. The historical narrative of some galleries is philanthropic – enlightening the community, giving something to the poor that will make them ‘better’…
JM — It’s also how funding structures have been co-opted by neoliberalism. Galleries have their ‘communities’. They almost carve out ‘this is my working class community!’ which can be used for funding bids. There’s a lot of territorialism….
BA — That’s written into funding criteria and there is a sort of success about that, another kind of aspirational thing. To me, it’s very missionary. I recently did some work around a film of James Baldwin’s visit to London in 1968 and he was asked about white liberals, and he broke down the idea of a why a white liberal can’t join the black power movement. He basically said that if it’s always about this idea of ‘I’m going to help you’, you’re not going to get anywhere, so we don’t want you in the movement. If something is happening to me, it’s also happening to you. This idea that it’s always this top down ‘I am giving to you’ is a really problematic thing. That’s why I think this idea of talking about it as art on estates – kind of almost negates that these places exist within a wider community, and we don’t need to separate that out.
DD — Do you think that what estates have come to symbolise – crime, poverty, the welfare state – is synonymous with what they are in reality?
BA — It’s rubbish. Everybody that I’ve ever worked with was working and the only people that weren’t were people that needed not to.
LOF — In the ’80s there was a deliberate Tory policy to run down those estates, and the media played a huge part in that. The way that those estates were maligned was vicious. This kind of demonisation of the working class. People used to be proud to be working class, it was good. We had the best sense of humour and the best places to go out and now it’s regarded as something to be ashamed of. There’s all these really vicious programmes on TV like ‘Benefits Street’.
JM — Perpetuated also by filmmakers and sometimes artists as well. It’s good drama isn’t it? You know drugs, and all that, and hardship.
BA — But it’s also the way in which these narratives have been accepted, because it’s not like you can’t write good stories… but if we look at the way television is going, the reality TV thing – if you think about the 1980s when Channel 4 came in, programmes were really informative and political, that sort of programming does not exist at all now. There was recently a Stuart Hall memorial conference at Goldsmiths and I was thinking of all these people that were involved in Marxism Today, the new left and feminist campaigns. All these people that were creating this culture have almost been wiped out. This weird classist ethnography that looks at Gypsy communities or benefit communities or chicken shops like they’re some sort of weird entity that has entered the UK. And we still have this narrative around British values and apparently these aren’t included.
LOF — What we’ve lost is that access to mainstream media. I think the problem with a lot of people on the left, or anarchists, or artists, is that we’ve almost allowed ourselves to settle in these little niche positions on the fringes of things. And we’ve accepted that and allowed the right to set in and take that centre ground and we’ve got to take that back.