for Critical Cities, Vol.2, 2010
I am Here is a photography-based public art work on a housing estate in Hackney, East London. The work was created by Fugitive Images, a group of artists living on the estate (Andrea Luka Zimmerman, Lasse Johansson and Tristan Fennell), and was made as a direct response to the experience of urban "regeneration."
The background to the project is as follows. Built in the 1930s, the Haggerston Estate was run by Hackney Council, and run into a shocking state of neglect. As tenants died or moved out, the Council boarded up the flats, so fewer and fewer were inhabited. Finally, the plan was that the estate would be transferred to the London and Quadrant Housing Association. They would demolish it and build a new estate, rehousing the inhabitants. Before the transfer took place, the Council placed bright orange boards over the windows of all the empty flats on the estate. The visibility of the boards further underlined the dilapidation of the estate, acting as an attractant and a showcase for the urban decay. The artists, resident on the estate and overlooking the Regents Canal towpath, often overheard passersby commenting on the state of the buildings, and speculating on reasons for the buildings' demise.
As residents, the artists knew that the image of the estate presented by the orange boards, an image of ruin, neglect and , was not the real story of the estate, nor of the diverse and often feisty characters who made the estate their home. Setting up a portrait studio in a disused flat on the estate, each resident was photographed, and the resulting large format colour portraits were placed over the 67 bright orange boards which have covered the windows of empty flats in Samuel House since April 2007. The title board proclaims "i am here" - personalising and humanising the building and the life within it. According to Fugitive Images "onlookers no longer stand unchallenged, as their gaze is met and returned by a multitude of faces."
The Haggerston Estate, which runs along Clarissa Street and Dunstan Road, is curiously named after the 18thC writer Samuel Richardson. I don't know if many of the estate's residents have ever known that. Aside from Samuel House, obviously named after Richardson, the rest of the blocks are named after his characters (as is Clarissa St itself, after the 1748 best-selling novel). Richardson's novels explore the difficulty of being virtuous in an immoral society. I'm wondering if this is the reason it was selected to name a social housing estate - or was just the product of a thwarted littérateur. As a planned development designed to house the poor and the modest, it may be that the naming of the complex had some intent to imbue the new tenants with a sense of virtue and decency, to be "like Pamela" or "like Clarissa" to name Richardson's two principal heroines and embodiments of virtue.
Virtue is a term we don't hear nowadays and we are rightly suspicious of the idea that any authority would seek to impose virtue on us. But it's not a bad idea to remind ourselves of the term and what it means. In a post-modern world, the oldfashioned notion of virtue is pushed aside, since the idea of moral excellence is problematic. Yet ethics and aesthetics run our lives. We can think for example of the virtues necessary for living in the urban environment: acceptance, awareness, benevolence, compassion, co-operativeness, courteousness, empathy. And the virtues embodied in the idea of social housing itself. For me, I am Here embodies a number of key virtues that are coincidentally exhorted in Richardson's work: beauty, candour, commitment, courage, creativity, empathy, excellence, generosity, honesty, fairness and understanding.
I am Here is a project which is both socially engaged and deals directly with the physical fabric of the city I Am Here raises the questions of "what is a home?" and "how and for whom is the city landscape produced?"
What is the meaning of space? What is a home? It is a locator of memory, and it shapes our lives and is shaped and reshaped by the lives that dwell within it. A house is possessed of both personal images and concrete reality. For Bachelard, the house is once we get beyond its simple role as shelter, is a space to dream; more specifically, the half-dreaming consciousness Bachelard calls reverie. The dreamscape where hopes, ambitions and emotions lie. "… the house shelters day-dreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace." (Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space)
As I write this, the demolition team is already at work, tearing down the buildings of the Haggerston Estate, with the exception of Samuel House where I Am Here is located. As Bachelard has said, "A house that has been experienced is not an inert box. Inhabited space transcends
geometrical space." Standing on the pavement outside the demolition site, I can see clearly into the flats through the glassless windows. Scanning rectangle after rectangle, with the aid of binoculars, I see a swirl of pink paint on a wall - this was a squat. Another room is bright with canary yellow paint. An elegant pale green wall, then wonderful 1960s Thunderbirds wallpaper. A ceiling fan evoking languorous hot summers. A paper Argos lantern, askew, against a painted chequerboard wall, in tones of blue. Perfect, serene luminous, pink. Eruptions of flower and foliage on paper. Cracked ceilings, peeling walls. A single lightbulb framed by a great swathe of fallen ceiling. Green, yellow and deep blue arranged in juxtaposition. More people here have luridly coloured walls that I might ever have imagined. Colour banishing the privations of small rooms, increasingly decaying infrastructure, lack of money. Fight back with colour. Make a space to dream. (I didn't know. I had red walls, yellow walls. I thought I was the only one.)
How, and for whom, is the city landscape produced? What is notable when one looks at the architectures of the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, how much of it was built for social purposes. From the late 19th century hopeful church building programme (built for non-existent congregations they have never been filled) to the more useful schools, lidos, hospitals and libraries, most of these old public buildings are no longer in their original use. While in many cases it is because they have outlived their original purpose, which has been relocated elsewhere, in just as many other cases, they have simply been taken out of use and exist as a void on the landscape reminding the locality that this service no longer exists. More commonly, the structure has been transformed into commercial use. The sense of public ownership of a structure is negated, made even more poignant by the palimpsest that remains: the carved frieze proclaiming the original status of the building: as a gift to the people of the district. Almost always, this re-purposing from public to private takes place under the aegis of "regeneration," so the visible passing from the hands of "the people" to those of the privileged is manifested. With public housing, the same process takes place, but on a more personalised level, as the tenants live on in the decay caused by structural neglect.
As a project that asks the public to look differently at social housing and the lived experience of locality, I Am Here challenges - by drawing attention to - the roots of current urban decay and disuse. It brings up notions of access and property, and questions social and economic structures.
When sites in the urban landscape visibly decay, or fall into disuse, how is their role in the life of the community changed? What does "ownership mean" The technical sense of ownership, that is legal title to bricks and mortar? Or the more metaphysical ownership of belonging, as in "I belong here, it is my home." In the case of I am here, the local authority's ownership of the physical property, and the decision to let the property decline and become de-tenanted, and to highlight the decay with the bright orange board, also catalysed the estate community's ownership of the site as both home and repository of memory. The photographs served to re-identify the site with the people who continue to live in it. They assert the continuity of life in the space, and the living presence that states "this property is NOT derelict. It is my home." With the placing of the images the building is repopulated, and emptiness is denied.
One of the difficulties with the project is that of maintaining delicate balances between "art" and "issues." I am here was not meant to be part of, or to commemorate, any activist attempt to "save" the estate. Neither the title board not the website claims any relationship to this kind of act. However, any challenge to the discourse of "gentrification", even at the level of asserting presence - as with this project - may be assumed to be oppositional. In its presentation, I am here has left it open to the viewer to make up their own mind about what they are seeing. The private identity of the artists as "the artists" is not disclosed, though they are there, amongst the photographs, identifying themselves as residents.
Site specific projects like I Am Here engage directly and indirectly with both the locality and the visitors to the locality. Often the encounter is problematic, with wariness and prejudices on both sides. From my own experience making site specific projects in places not traditionally associated with "art", the incursion of "art" audiences into non-art districts can be resented as an incursion, the first intimation of what Iain Sinclair has called "the shock troops of the developers" (Rodinsky's Room). At the same time, the bourgeois thrill of visiting the proletarian squalor of a council state for an art event, is also fraught with problems. But these perceived problems simply confront us with the social and political relations of the current state of affairs in our urban landscape and the social and political systems that underpin it all. Projects like I am here can have great potential value in forcing these kind of confrontations, as the "two nations" face one another, brought together through the mediating influence of art rather than "issues."
Attending Roger Hiorns's exhibition Seizure, I was asked if I thought that Hiorns's use of the "anonymous council flat near the Elephant & Castle. " (Artangel website) represented the incursion of a bourgeois, privileged artist into territory demarked as useless, wasted, horrible by definition and above all working class, to transform it into a playground for the arty middle class? A little surprised by this question, I replied that I did not know, but it has haunted me ever since. It's not an unfair accusation, and can be levelled at my own projects, though I certainly don't want it to be the case (and I imagine Hiorns is the same). But it can not be levelled at Fugitive Images.
I Am Here is very different from the commissioned public art projects and social engagement projects that have long been running in Hackney and indeed across the UK. The project comes from inside its subject. It was not commissioned, did not answer any preordained call for proposals nor access any pre-existing funding. The project's impetus came from inside its subject: by residents who were themselves artists, and who sought to break down the notion that the artist and the community are somehow separate entities.
The perceived divergence of interests between "artists" and "the community" is an interesting one. So often we see the description "artists and the community" or artists encountering the community." It is as if the artist is never actually a part of the community. And sometimes this is the case; the artist comes in the do the project and then goes, with little in the way of "encountering." This kind of artistic nomadism has been identified time and again, as both potentially an opportunity, and as potentially a problem. Nomadism has within it the possibility of being open and spontaneous, able to subvert or undermine organized institutions and relationships. It opens up the possibility of chance, of mutation, of escaping boundaries At the same time, nomadism has within it the potentiality for invasiveness, even patronisation. One of these is how artistic nomadism often uncritically joins in the existing hegemonic discourses of identity, community and economic power, that pay only lipservice to the possibility for autonomy within the subject.
DISCOURSES OF DEPRIVATION
One of the main strengths of I Am Here is how it eschews the discourse of "deprivation" and "exclusion" that invariably accompany any discussion of, or projects that involve, housing estates or inner-city areas. This discourse appears with stunning regularity and lack of questioning in films, photography and too many art projects. But the odd thing is, if one actually lives in, or has lived in, such a place, one can never again see it from "the outside."
(For example, over a period of several years, I spent a lot of time staying on a provincial Soviet-era housing estate in Russia, the kind that are shown on documentaries about the evils of Communism. I was just living there; it had no relation to the work I was doing in Russia. My photographs, when I look at them now, are of old women sunning themselves while gossiping, children playing, buying bread and vegetables from the farm truck, glorious sunsets turning the facades fiery pink.... There is no narrative of post-Soviet desperation, or of the dehumanisation of Communism. It is a shelter, a home; marked by the bunch of wildflowers in a jar on the table, the jumble of books, the laughter of friends.)
I Am Here is incapable of taking on the discourse of "deprivation" because the people who made the project: those who photographed and those who were photographed, live the experience of the estate. While the differences between have and have-nots are seen and acknowledged - the City is within walking distance - it is not the main focus of daily life.
I too am a resident of the Haggerston Estate, and therefore also a participant in I Am Here. What's interesting to me is that, despite over 10 years of site responsive art practice, I never felt how it is to be the subject of a site responsive project. I never experienced participation in an artistic critical examination of my own personal environment. From Russia to Belfast, Stoke to Berlin, I was always the nomad, finding interesting places to work, to investigate and "respond to" but I never turned my inquiry onto my own space. When I was approached by Fugitive Images, I was firstly stunned that a group of artists was living in the same estate block as me; such is London's sense of community that we really do not know one another. Secondly, I had to face the question of whether I was willing to participate in putting my hidden little estate on the public map, and my own face on a giant billboard. It was not an easy decision, even though in principle I liked the project. But I have spent more than a decade safely, aloofly, in the anonymity of the metropolis. It actually hasn't bothered me that I know only two of my neighbours. Added to that was the thought, do I want passers-by, who may know me only by reputation, to say "My god, does SHE live in that crappy block of flats?"
And above all, I simply feared the effects of bringing more "art" into the area. I have been deeply suspicious of the artists' role in commercialising urban districts, spearheading socially-disastrous gentrification schemes - however unwittingly - by creating "arty" districts. I knew Shoreditch was sunk over ten years ago when I over-heard some people asking a taxi in Old St to take them "back to Chelsea." That's it, I thought, priced out of the market. It did not take long. Now the studios are pricey "live-work spaces" for people who do not actually "work" as artists. And I have to reflect that, when it comes to housing, the only artists I know in London who own their own homes are those who had the homes paid for by parents. Almost everyone else lives in some form of subsidised housing: council flat, housing association, co-op. For me, shedding more light of publicity onto a forgotten part of London - in this case Haggerston - was tantamount to betrayal in the form of price rises.
So, then, why did I agree to participate in I Am Here, and how do I assess the project as a resident? Firstly, clearly because it is a completely resident-driven project, I don't feel patronised or manipulated. There is no agenda being served here but ours. We are collectivity saying, this is our place, we are here. The radicalism is in the eye of the beholder, with his or her malign fantasies of estates harbouring feral hooded cutthroats and indigent skagheads, when faced with 67 portraits of very ordinary people. At the same time, I am reassured that because of the quality of the photography and the installation, the project is legitimated artistically. The portrait are very different from those that line the windows and hoardings of new developments, both social and private. Those billboards bear images of carefully chosen models, all of them fit and sleek, with perfect teeth and perfect children, sometimes elegantly multiracial or ageing gracefully. I Am Here shows real people, Londoners, in all of their variety. The photographs are unglamorous but not unflattering, riding the line between social documentation and family portrait.
How have I and my fellow residents appropriated I Am Here ? The project gave the residents an opportunity to come together and meet one another. It has provided a point of communication where we recognise one another and feel a stronger sense of shared experience. It is a source of pride that when people pass by along the canal tow-path they are looking at the photos and it is a positive experience. And lastly, as the buildings of the Haggerston Estate are taken down one by one, it puts a human face onto a process that for most of the city's dwellers, is mysterious and impersonal.
And in any case, the city marches on. Kingsland Road is in recession now: Dalston a tangle of pound shops and the route from Haggerston to Shoreditch glazed with empty shopfronts. The blaring narratives about prosperity and the great nation slide in one ear and out the other. What matters is home, however it may be found. And I am here asserts that, for these people here and now, among all the faceless stereotyped multitudes, this place is Home.