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Bricoleurze

An exhibition co-curated with Space In Between, London. Titled Bricoleurze, the show features new works by Annie Davey and Tom Railton, two artists whose practices share a common thread.

Taking the site of the gallery in Regent Studios, and the near surrounding area, as a starting point for this exhibition both Railton & Davey have sought to weave a narrative in to and around the area’s history as well as its recent state of change and gentrification. Tom Railton & Annie Davey’s works use a para-fictional strategy to explore architecture and the role of the designer or town planner within the context of an industrial space – in this case Regent Studios – with a nod toward the absurdity of café culture, urban spread, new housing and gentrification.

Bricoleurze features video work, sculpture and drawings, as well as a performance by Matthew de Kersaint Giraudeau and a publication including texts by historian David Morris and myself. The publication acts as part archive and part bibliography – a physical manifestation of the conversations that have surrounded the creation and curation of the works on show.

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My essay for the catalogue in full:

Where do we stand?

In this exhibition two artists grapple with site. We look out the window, at floor plans, elevations, and search for the history of a building that is so banal in its construction there is little trace of who built and used it. Clues point to light industry, the moving of goods from pillar to post. Now its floors and boxlike spaces are studded with artisans and artist run project spaces rubbing cheek by jowl with the importers and exporters. There is a precarity to the building that is common to most of its kind in housing starved London. The looming threat of ‘development’ promises to nip nascent cultural activities in the bud, themselves heavily implicated in the area’s yuppification, in favour of the far more lucrative loft-living brigade. How to negotiate this nexus?

Both artists use parafictional strategies to leap over and beyond soapbox gentrification bashing and into subjectivities fostered by the pressures inherent to a city’s restless growth and contraction. Interlacing narrative, history, fact, reverie, double-entendre and ludic form their works explore, negate and frustrate contemporary debates around housing and architecture. In our fractured and fragmented realities that are constantly transcended by the all-encompassing fictional category of ‘the contemporary’ parafiction is a fitting mode of representation, one that gathers these fragments and through re-amalgamating them ruptures the smooth surface of the contemporary. Peter Osborne states that the only possibility for contemporary art is if ‘the subject position of its production is able to reflect something of the structure of the contemporary itself [1]’, effectively an ‘interpretation of what is through the construction of new wholes out if its fragments and modalities of existence’.

Public and private space is just such a fractured facet of the contemporary. Commentators often problematically project a universal ‘public’ upon the uses of both. However, this public is striated, partial and contradictory in its needs. The current approach of privatisation is just as partial and threatens to neglect whole swathes of a vulnerable section of society in favour of those ‘customers’ with spending power. The proffered new build solution denies the impact of architecture upon subjectivity, a concept explicated in ‘The Poetics of Space’ by Gaston Bachelard which phenomenologically and psychoanalytically explores the relationship between our lived experience of architecture, memory and identity; from the attic to cellar, shells to nests. Lionised Modernist architectErnö Goldfinger described architecture as an art of the ‘enclosed space’ working on the subject subconsciously in the same pervasive way that music does. A building thus only becomes architecture ‘when it moves you’. Recent research undertaken by RIBA reveals that the average one bedroom new build is 46 m², the same size as a Jubilee Line tube carriage, making Britain’s new build homes the smallest in Europe, exemplary of an architecture of neglect, corner-cutting and claustrophobia.

The iconography of the issues of gentrification and housing is strongly prevalent in all aspects of contemporary politics and culture. George Osborne decided to host his ‘I was right on the economy’ speech at 1 Commercial Street, an East London tower block whose construction was abandoned in 2008. Here, through an exhausted visual metaphor, he hammered the point home that his austerity measures had laid the ‘foundations’ for growth, that he is ‘building’ up Britain. In series two of Hackney based drama ‘Top Boy’, the first of which pulled in 1 million viewers, characters deal with the effects of rising commercial rent and the threatened development and eviction of residents from troubled estate Summerhouse. When one of the lead characters is taken to a bohemian café he mutters, ‘this isn’t for people like me’. Although gentrification is ponderously explored in the programme this line echoes in writer Anna Minton’s research and analysis of urban planning and the corporatisation of public and private space. In her interviews with original residents of the Docklands about the ‘rejuvenation’ of their area with glossy new builds, replete with gyms and restaurants, interviewee’s state that they are categorically ‘not for them’. Minton notes the social division fostered by this kind of planning, in which wealthy residents live in apartments guarded by private security firms, whilst poorer residents are evicted from the area, a process legitimated by the sinisterly named Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004.

Recent research by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism concluded that a staggering 10,832 households have been moved out of their home boroughs in the past year, cutting them off from friends and family, and creating a disturbing pattern of those with need being pushed out of central London. One such example is the fate of those living in Erno Goldfinger’s Balfron Tower in Poplar. Once widely derided as a Brutalist monstrosity replete with social issues and an icon of failed utopian social engineering, the tower has now become fashionable for its architectural heritage and the pragmatic realisation that flats built in this era are far more spacious than those being built now. Residents will be entirely removed from Balfron by December 31st 2013, the flats stripped and redecorated, with one-bedroom apartments selling for £350,000. Residents were offered £10,000 compensation for the loss of their home. Bow Arts Trust has accelerated the rate of artists living in the building, and a few galleries operate from there now but will leave with the rest.

The relationship between art and gentrification is a fraught one, with developers often nipping at the heels of artist’s hunt for cheap living and working spaces. Rosalynd Deutsche, in her appraisal of the relationship between art and urbanism connects the burgeoning population of homeless on the streets with the gentrification of the Lower East Side and growth of the East Village art scene in New York. (Incidentally homelessness in the UK has risen by 30% since 2010.[2]) In her formulation urban redevelopment is connected to the constant search for Capital to express itself, with dismal implications for urban communities. ‘Instead of celebrating redevelopment as a ‘revitalizing’ and ‘beautifying’ process, I view it as the historical form of late-capitalist urbanism, facilitating new international relations of domination and oppression and transforming cities for private profit and state control.[3] The insatiable action of Capital upon city spaces follows the same geography that the artist occupies. In her book ‘Loft Living, Culture and Capital in Urban Change’, sociologist Sharon Zukin traces the transformation of SoHo in New York during the 1970’s, noting that artists reject the bourgeois disregard of areas with social problems and intentionally move to these areas transforming derelict buildings into studios and galleries – indeed artists such as Gordon Matta Clark actively worked with the tissue of such a landscape reclaiming the city through his architectural interventions. Sadly this movement became rapidly subsumed into a ‘lifestyle’ and sold to consumers as part of a new creative economy that conveniently swept away problematic class relations. A further fraught relationship exists within the partnership of urban planning projects with public art which. Deutsche posits that public art in this context must seek to ‘disrupt, rather than secure, the apparent coherence of its new urban sites’. The challenge for contemporary artistic practice is to fulfil this disruptive potential by continually contesting subsumption into the status of ‘lifestyle’ product and imaginatively inhabiting alternate subjectivities that open reality to multiplicity and reinterpretation.

[1] Osborne, Peter The fiction of the contemporary: speculative collectivity and transnationalism in The Atlas Group. In: Avanessian, Armen and Skrebowski, Luke, (eds.) Aesthetics and contemporary art. 2011, Berlin, Germany : Sternberg Press.

[2] Shelter

[3] Deutsche, Rosalyn. Art and Spatial Politics. 1998, MIT Press.