Working River: An Oral History of London’s Boatyards

In 2018 I managed the project ‘Working River’, documenting the living history of London’s boatyards, from the Thames Barrier up to Teddington Lock. The project was run by the wonderful Thames Festival Trust, in partnership with the Museum of London, supported with a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. To help make this project happen, 25 fantastic volunteers worked with me to interview 28 men and women who spent their lives working in, or with, London’s boatyards and shipyards. Ranging from aged 18 to 87 years old, we recorded their memories of these yards, their training and the development of their prolific boatbuilding skills, as well as the significant changes to this Thames industry during their working lives. 11 of the audio oral history interviews from this project have become part of the collections of the Museum of London, and another 15 are part of a film, made by Digital:Works, about this history. As part of the project we also had four exhibitions along the Thames, as part of Totally Thames festival 2017, attracting over 10,000 visitors to engage with this history. The project was recorded by contemporary photographer Hydar Dewachi, whose beautiful photographs captured the people and the yards today.

HD_170602_4143 © Hydar Dewachi
South Dock Marina. Photo © Hydar Dewachi
HD_170525_0206 © Hydar Dewachi
B J Wood & Son, Isleworth. Photo © Hydar Dewachi
HD_170614_2624 © Hydar Dewachi
Ted Leppard, Eel Pie Island Slipways. Photo © Hydar Dewachi.
HD_170621_5059 _ed © Hydar Dewachi.jpg
Bill Colley, Richmond Boathouses. Photo (c) Hydar Dewachi.

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For more information about the project, interviews, film, photographs and the book, go to www.thamesfestivaltrust.org.

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Information Links for East London History

This list is being added to all the time. If you wish to add your, or a relevant link here please tweet me @beamoyes.

Useful links for East London History

A Hackney Autobiography – recording and remembering the history of Centerprise.

Acme Studios 

Barking and District Historical Society

Bishopsgate Institute Archives

Bow Arts Trust

Brick Lane Bookshop – History of Stepney Books/T.H.A.P and Basement Writers

Claremont Road Protests

Columbia Road Flower Market 

De Beaver – archive of newspapers of the De Beauvoir Association from 1971-1984

Dennis Severs’ House – 18 Folgate Street

Docklands History Group

East London History – website

East London History Society

East London Mosque

East London Big Flame

East London Group – history of the painting collective

East End Walks – website of Radical History walks around East London

Eastside Community Heritage

Exploring East London – website of art and history artefacts

Friends of Hackney Nurseries – a local group of parents, nursery workers, local residents and community activists that believe that quality childcare should be affordable and accessible to all those who need it.

Four Corners

The Geffrye Museum

G Kelly Pie and Mash Shop

Hackney Solidarity Network – umbrella organisation for activists and community groups in the borough. Publish the 21st century Hackney Heckler.

Hackney Flashers – archival site dedicated to this 1970s radical feminist photography collective

Hackney Archives

The Hackney Society

Hackney Oral History – a collective of people interested in oral history who are currently researching people’s experiences of housing in Hackney

Hackney Wick History

Hackney Historic Buildings Trust

Jewish East End Celebration Society

Leyton History Society

The Limehouse Project

Linda Wilkinson – History of Columbia Road

London’s Screen Archives

Mernick Brothers – website

M11 Link road Protest

Neil Martinson

Newham Archives

Newham Story

Newham Asian Women’s Project – interview with Shila Takor for the Swadhinata Trust

OPEN Dalston – campaigns for excellence in the quality of the built environment and public realm, the provision of transportation and amenities, and to ensure that changes to these have proper regard to the needs of local residents and businesses and the maintenance of a sustainable residential and business community.

Open School East

Radical History of Hackney

Rotherhithe and Bermondsey Local History Society

SPACE Studios

Spitalfields Life

Spitalfields Trust

Spitalfields Crypt Trust

Stepney School Strike (1971) – pinterest images

The People’s Story of Woodberry Down

The Island History Trust (Isle of Dogs)

Tower Hamlets Archives

The Lost-Byway – writings and documentaries by John Rogers

Leytonstone Museum Archives

What Is Chats Palace?

Wilmot Street History

Women’s Cooperative Guild

‘Somewhere in Hackney’ (1980)

As part of the archive research and interviews I’ve been working on for On-the-Record’s oral history project, ‘A Hackney Autobiography’, I’ve come across this fantastic short independent film ‘Somewhere in Hackney‘, made by Ron Orders in 1980. The film is available free from the BFI website here. It features many of the key workers at Centerprise in the 1970s, and community projects across Hackney at that time.

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The Birth of Architectural Salvage

The Birth of Architectural Salvage in 1977:

The sometimes savage salvage of architectural features, monuments and materials has a long history. From nomadic architectures, to ancient ruins, and recent revivals such as Classicism with architects such as Sir John Soane’s own eclectic collections. However, as it is understood today, the terminology of architectural salvage can be pinned-down to a specific period in 1977, when a confluence of political, environmental, aesthetic and urban interests made the recovery and reuse of architectural features not only economically but also morally significant.

The birth of architectural salvage sits at an important intersection of architectural history. As part of the conservation and heritage movements. It can be viewed as a symptom of the demise of architectural modernism; from its totalising, utopian conception of architectural progress, to a more regressive postmodern stance. This Janus-faced turning of tides typified, especially in London, by a shift from the dreams of middle-class suburbia in the 1950s and 1960s, to an increasing move to inner city living. A concern with renovating and converting older urban housing stock and industrial warehousing for residential use. While the salvaging of older materials from demolished buildings was certainly nothing new, it is in this period that changes in architectural and aesthetic cultures developed an industry for architectural salvage leading to emerging markets for those who could salvage and sell pieces which would be installed in these newly revived urban heritage homes.

In Britain the roots of the architectural salvage movement were crucially encouraged by a campaign launched by The Architects’ Journal and Architectural Review, in the spring of 1977. A collaboration was initiated between the architectural journals and the new salvage firm Hutton & Rostron Ltd, establishing a marketplace for the obvious demand between available salvage and new customers looking for salvaged pieces. It was a novel and popular idea, with these early market place pages including listings for items like ‘wrought iron Edwardian Street Lamps’, ‘Victorian highly decorated iron spiral staircases’, ‘Oak beams from the 15th and 16th Centuries, £3-£5 per foot’ and ‘stone corbels and gargoyles c.1840’. They display an eclectic mix of architectural salvaged pieces, from a wide range of historical periods, which are both unique and considered worth preserving. [1]

Whether as a result of this campaign, or a mutually concurrent enterprise, many other companies set up over the next few years, including the London Architectural Salvage and Supply Co. (LASSCO), founded in Shoreditch in 1978. LASSCO’s own foundation points to this important role of architectural journalists in the development of architectural salvage. They even go so far as to claim the earliest use of the term ‘architectural salvage’ to a piece by Dan Cruickshank in Architectural Review. While the real history of the terminology does predate this in these journals by nearly a year, this terminology is important in suggesting this early role of the journals, and also the interrelation between these new salvage companies and the types of demand being met. Dan Cruickshank himself, probably did play a key role and was a formative innovator in this movement, being both a contributing editor to both journals and also as a founding member of the Spitalfields Trust (est. 1977), which was squatting and renovating the Huguenot housing in Spitalfields at this time. Indeed the Spitalfields can be seen at the forefront of the conservation movement in East London, and it can be no accident that LASSCO’s first office was only round the corner from Spitalfields and within spitting distance of these areas of historic renovation.

In one of his early articles in the Architects’ Journal in 1977, laid out his arguments for architectural salvaging:

“In 1975, 59,500 houses alone were demolished in Britain, and that, according to demolition contractors, was a bad year (90,500 houses were demolished in 1971) […] what happened to the building materials from which this vast number of houses was constructed and with which they were decorated? Mostly they were burnt, buried, or crushed for hard core […] There is no real attempt on a national scale to salvage, redistribute and re-use the vast amount of ‘energy’ that is represented by the brick and stone of demolished building […] This waste is doubly criminal because not only are these materials […] of intrinsic value, but also because there are people, throughout the country who need solid, seasoned, second hand building materials and architectural features.”[2]

It was only the previous year, in 1976, that The Architects’ Journal was publishing letters which described salvagers as mere ‘floggers’; and yet Cruickshank’s article presents a new credibility to the work of salvaging. Architectural salvage seemed to have shifted from a largely working class occupation, suggested by the derogative work ‘floggers’, to a respectable industry grounded in environmentalism and aesthetic conservation. The environmental aspect of saving and re-using materials, also fits into a wider paradigm shift of inner-city living, with an increasing concern for the urban sprawl and the protection of rural environments. It can be placed within concerns for waste, for the consequences of urban expansion, and with the rapid construction and demolition of modernist architectures. As shown clearly in Spitalfields, the renovation of older housing and the growth of inner-city heritage and conservation, there was also an interesting contemporary concern with historical authenticity, and with the restoration of features which had been removed by previous occupants less concerned with heritage aesthetics. As historians like Raphael Samuel have pointed to, with his term ‘retrofit’. The irony of this was that despite restoring these interiors to a vision of the past, with their original ‘period’ features, architectural salvage also suggests a postmodern fragmentation of the historical interior, with these features divorced from their original site, and with historical appearance outweighing original context as the bedrock of authenticity.

The salvage movement was not confined to the London and the UK, with salvage initiatives springing up across the United States around 1977, particularly in New Portland, Oregon; and in New York City. In 1977 Gil Shapiro established his first New York based salvage company, Urban Archaeology, building on an increasingly vibrant movement of ‘Loft Living’, outlined in Sharon Zukin’s seminal book of 1982, and by the rapid turnover of populations in areas like SoHo and Greenwich Village. Since earlier in the 1970s, Shapiro had also been at the forefront of a self-proclaimed ‘guerrilla’ movement which called itself ‘The Anonymous Art Reclamation Society’. The society, which included members such as the renowned art collector and gallerist Allan Stone, salvaged discarded art and architectural pieces, giving them anonymously to art institutions like the Brooklyn Museum. Often humorously referred to as ‘the gargoyle snatchers’, this anonymous collective suggests a political as well as aesthetic agenda to the early architectural salvage movement. Evoking the language of ‘reclamation’ and ‘guerrilla’ tactics, the Art Reclamation Society sought, not only to rescue these works, but also to bring them to institutions in which they would have the most public visibility, rather than keeping them in private ownership.

There is something in this redistribution of material, as well as aesthetic wealth, which connects to the Socialist agenda in this period. The preservation of history for the people. And yet, there is something clearly contentious about the relationship between architectural salvage, private ownership and public museums. While the ‘Anonymous Art Reclamation Society’ was donating their salvaged finds to public museums, the architectural salvage movement as a whole seems to represent the failure, or more accurately the limitation, of museums to collect and display salvaged treasures which were being made available be demolition and rapid rebuilding. However, it is not merely the capacity of museums, but also the rapid gain in commercial capital of reclaimed materials and architectural pieces, which suggests not only the growing privatisation of the concept of the museum, but also the reconceptualization of the private space of the home as a heritage museum. In Spitalfields again, the best example of this is the Denis Sever’s house in Folgate Street, described as a ‘still-life drama’. Created by Severs between 1979 and his death in 1999, the house is a fantastical interior, both ‘retro-fitted’ to the Hugenot period, but also a complete theatrical fiction.

Any socialist political agenda within early architectural salvage was clearly not long lasting. Architectural salvage has become a multi-billion dollar industry across the world, increasingly catering for an elite minority and encouraging spin-off reproduction industries and mass produced faux heritage mouldings, chandeliers and fireplaces. Over the last decade, as architectural salvage has reached completely disproportionate prices, we have the rise of the distressed ‘shabby-chic’, bringing new, cheap furniture, an essence of age and re-use. So, with this hindsight, what is the value of examining this history of architectural salvage? Firstly, it is clear and important evidence for the shifts in architectural tastes which produced a significant market in the late 1970s. It indicates this important intersection between the rapid urban construction policies of the 1970s, and the conservative response to rapid change, with the desire to protect, restore and to retreat into the past. Domestic interiors, those womb-like private spaces, which have provided a significant space of retreat from the public space, can also be seen as a microcosm of the contemporary public perception, and, as seen with architectural salvage, themselves playing a significant role in commercial markets and public activities. The second point about architectural salvage, is that it refocused the notion of urban construction as cyclical. Of buildings and their contents as reusable, and, to coin the expression adopted by many architects at this time, ‘loose’. Unlike within modernism, which idealised contained communities, perfect design and prescribed methods of occupation; this attitude simultaneously had an increasing consciousness of property ownership, as well as the significance of occupancy as temporary, and buildings themselves as temporary. Re-occupied, or demolished and internally dissected, for new spaces, purposes and times.

 

[1] ‘Architectural Salvage’, The Architects’ Journal, 9th April 1978.

[2] Dan Cruickshank, ‘Architectural Salvage’, Architects’ Journal (January 26th, 1977), pp. 148-149.

The Artist Pioneer

This article was published by 3:AM magazine in October 2014, and is republished with kind permission from 3:AM.

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Our contemporary stripped-pine pioneers have recreated a pattern of street life that originally belonged to the old working-class East End […] Their crescents and squares are turning into one-class communities of neighbours […] The easiest way of making house prices soar is for two people to move into a decrepit square and paint their facades white. The point should be taken within a few weeks, when these ghost pioneers should these be able to re-sell their houses at an amazing profit.’ (Jonathan Raban, Soft City, 1974).

Since the 1960s a picture has emerged. A collective language of urban development, which paints artists – to use a generic conglomeration of fine artists, writers, architects, photographers and filmmakers – as urban pioneers. It would seem this has become the portrait of urban renewal. Artists as what Jonathan Raban so cuttingly called the ‘stripped-pine pioneers’. First-wave foot soldiers of gentrification. Bolding marching beyond the frontiers of well-trod quartiers, in search of new, cheap, interesting spaces to live and work. Renovating, retrofitting and renewing areas of the city which have often lain degraded by economic and industrial decline. Rebuilding them from the rubble up, towing eager property developers in their wake. Creative pioneers, who, in the following decades will be kicked out as future rich ‘yuppies’ move and property prices were pushed into the stratosphere.

This language of the artist as pioneer has a long history, working alongside a Romantic vision of the artist as outsider. As practical craftsman. As bohemian in their ability endure the rough and ready lifestyle of run-down spaces, and poet in their re-vision of them. However, it is this direct connection to housing – with artists as pioneers of urban renewal – which is particularly traceable to a period in the late 1960s and 1970s, voiced first with the loft conversions of New York’s SoHo district, and later transposed, to areas to the East of London. In Hackney, Bow and Wapping, artists of the late 1960s eagerly took over industrial warehouses, laid dormant by declining industry. Housing cooperatives like S.P.A.C.E and Acme, made these shells of brush and lightbulb factories, into studios, and into loft-living spaces. In areas still left standing after the Blitz, and after the exuberant demolition and tower block construction of the 1950s and 60s; artists also took up occupation in Victorian and Georgian properties which had been largely left to rot. Renovating them, and renewing part of East London like Shoreditch and Hoxton from areas of declining population, to the now fashionable hubs of recent years, with booming commercial and residential, and creative economies. In a fascinating BBC documentary, ‘Ours To Keep’, the late, great Denis Severs – whose house in Folgate Street, Spitalfields, was a beacon for these creative incomers – espouses the freedoms of these artist renovators. As he puts it in 1985, ‘I think most people think of it as a new frontier [..] that is what makes it so special’.

It was Ruth Glass, the Marxist sociologist, who first introduced that clunky portmanteau, ‘gentrification’ to our vocabulary in 1964, describing the advancing middle-classes in Islington. Just north of the East-End. Over a decade before Thatchers housing reforms, Glass’ sociological survey led the way for property to become an indicative linch-pin in the analysis of urban change. She outlined the process of opportunism as (often) left leaning, young liberal intellectuals and creative graduates moved to ‘shabby, modest mews and cottages’ in run-down areas, transforming them into ‘elegant, expensive residences’ with escalating price tags. In East London, half a decade later, it was the very demands of new waves of graduate artists, seeking cheap living and working space, which brought new middle-class inhabitants to the East End of London. Established housing associations, like S.P.A.C.E and Acme studios; and working collectives like the London Filmmakers Cooperative, in the late 1960s and early 70s. These semi-organised groups took advantage of the disordered local housing systems, and large numbers of derelict buildings. Utilising them from their own individual and collective purposes. Like New York a decade earlier, it is through housing that one can see this perfect curve of transformation. Artists moving in, areas being ‘done-up’, priced-up, and later, when these prices sky rocketed, with artists being priced-out.

While Glass’ report in 1964 was ahead of the curve in reflecting this process, her tone is far from glorifying the activities of these middle-class incomers. She describes Islington as being ‘invaded’, and states that, ‘once this process of gentrification starts in a district it goes on rapidly, until all or most of the original working-class occupiers are displaced and the whole social character of the district is changed’. Other writers have given even more violent accounts of this process. The historian Jerry White has suggested these gentrifiers were a Trojan horse, whose belly has burst […] the bastards […] fanning out through the streets, burning, looting, raping. Trampling our memories, stealing our treasures, destroying our history. Stripping our assets. From White’s perspective of ‘our’ history, the history of residents of East London before the late 1960s, these in-coming residents are colonialists. Ransacking the old East End. Though White’s metaphor is somewhat overdramatised, his perspective does highlight how divisive the language of the ‘pioneer’ is. It’s whitewashing of the people who lived and worked in East London long before the gentrification of the 1960s, and whose culture, traditions and industries long pre-predated this period. It is the pioneer as adventurer, crossing the unknown frontier, which presupposes the East End as a ‘non-place’, without characteristics, culture or economy before these artists moved in. And nothing, of course, could be further from the truth. In direct opposition to this, it is extremely interesting that the artists moving to East London, were themselves so interested in the culture and history of the area. Indeed, it was the historic vibrancy, the multicultural mixing of East London which intensified interest in artists moving to the area in the 1960s and 1970s. We can see it in the works of artists like Gilbert & George, Jock MacFadyn; in the films of Derek Jarman and Stanley Kubrick. An interest in the reality, the grit and industrial culture of East London, which was slowly being eroded by this process of gentrification.

The East End has always held interesting communities of artists, writers and thinkers; long before the YBAs of the 1990s. To name but a few key groups; cooperatives were set up, like the East London Group including John Cooper and Walter Sickert in the 1920s and 1930s, keenly interested in the landscape and workers of the East End. Public institutions like the Whitechapel Gallery have been important supporters of local artists since first opening in 1901. Exhibiting international shows of Jackson Pollock and Picasso, to the people of the East End, as well as providing a exhibition space for local artists. Areas like Whitechapel and Bow have long been the historic location for craftsmen, and important place for artists and writers of immigrant communities who made East London their home; from the Huguenot silk weavers, to the Yiddish community. Groups that emerged include the important ‘Whitechapel Boys’, with members like Isaac Rosenberg and David Bomberg, whose work is keenly interested in the Jewish community in this area at that time. Artists who moved to East London in the 1970s clearly did not wish to whitewash these previous communities. Indeed, in recent literary traditions, from writers like Iain Sinclair, there is a certain scavenging mentality which draws heavily on a certain historical nostalgia for an East End before they themselves arrived.

In the years just before groups like S.P.A.C.E studios emerged in East London, a key documentary by Robert Vas’, Belonging (broadcast by the BBC in 1967), is an incredibly interesting record of three artists living in and around Stepney in the mid-1960s. Vas himself was a Hungarian emigre, forced from Prague after the uprising in 1957. His early films, like Refuge England, were included in Lindsey Anderson’s pivotal Free Cinema movement, and as such portray a neo-realist stance with a humanity which exposes individual stories behind big political and social events. In Belonging, Vas follows the painter John Holmes (known as Johnny Martin for the purposes of the documentary), the poet Johnny Quarrell, and the Yiddish poet, Abraham Nahum Stencl, each struggling with their work and the context of their surroundings in East London. On-one-hand these artists represents a strong cultural and artistic life in the East End, and yet, there is an implicit acknowledgement that these men are outsiders to the traditional or commercial systems of London at the time.

This is particularly evident as Vas follows John Holmes, working through the night in his modernist sixties council flat, as he tries to break into the commercial galleries in West London and in the world of advertising. Throughout the film is evidence of artists working and living in East London, and yet it is equally clear that their horizons are focused on central and west London, or even abroad, to have any commercial or public success. This is also true the other artists from East London, like David Bomberg, who necessarily involved themselves in circles in Camden, or in North London, in order to have opportunities to exhibit and be significant within the art worlds of their time.

What changed then, from the late 1960s to today? Why did East London establish itself as such a hub for working artists from 1968-1980? The answer can perhaps be found in this very language of the artist pioneer, which I have suggested is so culturally divisive and historically inaccurate. Artists organisations like S.P.A.C.E studios, set up by Bridget Riley and Peter Sedgeley in St Katherine’s Dock in 1968, while by no means being the first group of artists in the East End, were pioneering in the way they approached and provoked the systems of the art world which had been long established. They muscled their way into these warehouse spaces, seen at the time as blighted symbols of imperial decline, and negotiated with the Greater London Authority for their temporary use. Many of these artists also pioneered a new forms of open criticism to public funding organisations like the Arts Council, challenging their narrow systems of arts funding. They actively encouraged change in the system which would allow new, young graduates to pursue avant-garde art forms of, not only bigger in scale but also beyond the remit of the commercial gallery as a space of display. Particularly in performance art, in mixed media, in film and in sculpture. It is interesting that, with many of those involved in S.P.A.C.E and Acme at this time, materials gleaned from local dumps and street corners were increasingly valued; with artists like Richard Deacon, using worn out domestic appliances and scrap wood, occupying an Acme studio at Acre Lane at the time.

It is new attitudes to exhibiting art which were key to how East London expanded in this time. While Johnny Holmes, in Vas’ documentary of 1967, was forced to look towards traditional commercial galleries in West London; only a few years later, large numbers of pioneering gallery spaces had been set up, fundamentally reforming the centre of art distribution and display. Groups like S.P.A.C.E were early adopters of the idea of ‘open studios’, encouraging collectors, gallerists, critics, and importantly other artists to visit their studios and view their work. This was not pioneering, the idea of open studios had been initiated centuries before in the salons of Paris, had been developed within the cultural circles of the Beat Poets in New York, and in Warhol’s Factory. But the idea of inverting the traditional flows of artistic production and dissemination, manifested at the time in exhibitions like When Attitudes Become Form, which was brought to the ICA in 1969, and indeed the writing of artists like Daniel Buren; radically altered the centre of the art world, bringing the space of the artists studio back into the centre of the art world.

Housing associations like S.P.A.C.E and Acme, not encouraged a critical mass of artists to move to East London, but also allowed a far more vital and communal attitude to art practice and exhibition to emerge. When Acme was founded in 1972 by young art graduates Jonathan Harvey and David Panton, S.P.A.C.E studios had already laid the way for working with local authorities to use and renovate derelict spaces in London, which Acme took full advantage of. Seeing the need for new forms of exhibition space, Acme established the Acme Gallery in Covent Garden in 1974, moving to The Showroom in Bow from the start of the 1980s. Many of the early residential properties Acme offered, by Tower Hamlets, Hackney and Leyton councils, were in a considerable state of disrepair and dereliction. So artists who took over these properties need to be innovative in their renovation of them, on very limited budgets, working within the limited planning controls imposed upon them to create spaces which would work best for them. Knocking through ceilings, walls and opening their spaces to allow them to get their pieces in and out, and to be spaces of production which they could life and work in. It was also as a group that they could share the skills of many of the artists who moved into these properties, with artists often supplementing incomes as builders, painters, plumbers ect. Indeed, in 1975, Acme brought out the first of many collectively published guides to doing up properties titled Help Yourself to A Studio, which was repeatedly republished in different forms throughout this first decade.

This DIY approach to making your own space also enabled many of these artists to create domestic galleries, and to show their own and each others work. Acme properties like the 1950s prefab houses on Conder Street, in Stepney, were used by artists like Bobby Baker, as temporary galleries. In 1976, Baker staged her performance series An Edible Family in a Mobile Home, allowing visitors to walk around her home over a period of two weeks and shockingly to consume the edible family she had created. A key street was Beck Road near Broadway Market which, in the 1980s, was home to artists like Genesis P. Orridge, Helen Chadwick and Mikey Cuddihy, and the centre of a tight knit art community. The American émigré, Maureen Paley, opened her gallery Interim Art in Beck Road in 1984, showcasing local artists in her converted home, including Hannah Collins, Susan Hiller, Stuart Brisley, Langlands & Bell, and her neighbour Helen Chadwick. Interim Art became a key gallery, not only because it launched many artists early careers, but also because the fluidity of the space and the experimentation and scope it encouraged, allowed new forms of work and reception to be developed. The centre of the art world was increasingly de-centralised, with, as Daniel Buren put it, the spaces of production, exhibition and commerce being fused and blended.

It is perhaps in the work of artists like Chadwick and Bobby Baker, both Acme residents, that the pioneering impact of these new gallery spaces is illustrated. Chadwick’s celebrated In the Kitchen series, first shown in 1977, like Baker’s Edible Family, used the houses as a space of performance and display, to say something new and politically current about the role of women, the family and the traditional representation of the home. Beyond the novelty of their use of space, and the DIY, ad-hoc construction of their shows; it was the spaces themselves which aided the pioneering of new forms of work, especially for women and from a feminist perspective. But this was pioneering as briocolage, as re-assemblage, rather than as something new. Artists playing with and inverting the ideas of other artists and thinkers. For example Bobby Baker’s implicit play with the works of male artists likeClaes Oldenburg’s Store (1961), which she admired, but equally wished to ‘domesticate’. Many artists in East London were putting these thoughts into practice. In their renovated Victorian properties or even pre-fabricated modernist blocks, it was the very scale and domesticity of these independent galleries, which brought a visual critique and oppositional context to the work. And more importantly, brought critics and collectors to their own front doors.

While, in the 1960s, avant-garde artists had lamented the lack of funding from sources like the Arts Council into new artists and spaces, by the early 1970s these pioneering projects and organisations had begun to attract significant grants and funds from the Arts Council, the Gulbeiken Foundation, and later, others like the National Lottery from 1994. Indeed, in her reflections on the late 1980s and 1990s, the filmmaker and performance artist Rose English, a long term collaborator of director Sally Potter and Acme resident, suggested that funding for performance art went into serious decline as funding was sucked into refurbishing properties. To an extent, the feedback loop of the surge of interest in East London since the late 1960s, particularly in terms of property and building regeneration, has been a victim of its own success. One cannot and should not circumscribe a blanket generalisation about the impact of this period of the 1980s and 1990s, on artists in East London, but under Thatcher, many artists living as tenants in properties like those of Beck Road under Acme, were invited to buy their properties, cementing and stabilising the situation of many artists who had been living in temporary, short term or squatting situations. Many were able to buy properties, maintain cheaper studio spaces through many of these continued housing associations. Some even profited significantly from the ensuing housing bubbles, and from new audiences and interest in their work which developed as a result of this new interest in East London. I say one cannot generalise because this is certainly not the whole story. At the same time, the price of properties rose to the extent which surpassed the means of many. Living prices also increased, and with new, more wealthy residents, many parts of East London have been cleansed of the tatty, self-made roughness, which at once galvanised residents in the 1970s towards change, and formed such an indelible part of the identity of the East End, which artists often revelled in.

If we look at this period, from 1970 to the present day, can we say this was a period of pioneering? Since the 1960s, many areas of East London have been completely transformed; both by the large government driven re-developments of the Docklands, and most recently at Stratford. But, at the heart of the re-invigoration of East London, has been the impetus and creative re-imagining of the area, often by incomers during this period of early gentrification. In the long-duree of East London history there is a problem in invoking the language of the pioneer. These artists were by no means the first, nor will they be the last to transform the area. Nor was this the East End the only area which was so transformed. Now, in areas like Deptford, Lewisham, Peckham and Purfleet, new generations act as stripped pine-pioneers. Rediscovering the suburbs, new outskirts of London. Seeking cheap living and working spaces. Looking for fledgeling communities of like-minded people.

Like the decline and fall of civilisations, as Gibbons would label it, gentrification sweeps into areas, transforms them, and then ultimately supersedes them. It is a waxing and waning process, which possibly, leaves the possibility for some further re-incarnation in the future. At some point, maybe soon, East London will cease to be nest of creative output. Artists moving to new areas, urban professionals replacing them, prices going up, creative industries moving on. Wave on wave on wave. And where is the pioneer now? Those artists pioneers of East London in the 1970s. Most are now in their 60s and 70s. Many have moved. Some made money in the ensuing property boom. Some not. Those who have stayed often look in horror at the influx of ‘hipsters’, at the new bright-young creatives and professionals leaking into East London, and turning every corner into a Climpson’s coffee shop. So generations roll over each other, re-making the city. It is not the city as a tabula rasa, with its populations pioneering new unfound territories. It is the city as a palimpsest. Continuously re-written, over-written, malleable. Reformed in continuous amorphous evolution.

 

The Necessity of Disorder in a Soft City: De Certeau vs Foucault

Here is a short article published in two parts by The Society Pages (September, 2014):

Part I

For better or worse, [the city] invites you to remake it, to consolidate it into a shape you can live in.

In his novel Soft City, written in 1974, Jonathan Raban eloquently drew out a vision of London as a fluid city. A city in a continuous process of making and re-making by its inhabitants. A postmodern city whose central locus was not imposed and pre-constructed, as with modernist urban utopias like those of Le Corbusier, but a palimpsest. Malleable and in constant state of construction.

My own research into the fluid fabric of the city has concentrated on the social and cultural shifts in East London when Raban was writing in the 1970s. I am looking, in particular, at the influx of artists whose DIY activities and collectives were instrumental in the transformation of this area of London. Again and again looking at this period I have returned to a central debate between the two French theorists, Michel Foucault and Michel De Certeau, regarding the power relations in the spaces of everyday life. A debate which hinges not only on how we see the city, but how we continue to construct future cities.

For Foucault power relations are everywhere, as mechanised actions, attitudes and functions in daily life. But in his vision of discipline and power, his panopticon; Foucault focused primarily on the imposition of power on the individual and the construction of environments and mentalities which ordered and controlled society. In his work The Practice of Everyday Life Michel De Certeau openly criticised Foucault’s instrumental power relations, suggesting that individuals (agents) often had power either through accepting these power relations, but also be resisting and manipulating them as consumers. De Certeau drew distinctions between the ‘strategic’powers, and the ‘tactical’resistances to these strategies through the re-appropriation of resources, spaces, language and narrative. To use an example to explain the differences between De Certeau and Foucault: a boss might impose work hours on an employee, but at the same time an employee might resist this control by spending time on Facebook or on the phone during their work hours. While Foucault’s work necessarily drew attention to the increasing move towards organisation as a central issue of power, De Certeau brought focus to the complexity in this one-directional flow of power. To the agency of individuals in re-ordering these very flows, and the actions of the everyday as the locus of this subversion.

When considering the complex organism which is the city, I would assert that in effect both Foucault and De Certeau are right. For De Certeau’s ‘tactical’ activities to exist, they must have strategic powers to resist. As Gibbons has suggested, the binary of strategies and tactics are not unique, but dynamically interconnected and interrelated. To look at it another way, we can consider their debate through Newton’s law of thermodynamics. In Newton’s second law there is an acknowledgement of entropy, the natural move of energy from systems of order to disorder. Systems of order and coldness require energy to be maintained, from the refrigerator to the white room. But, within rigidly constructed systems, there is little room for manoeuvre, improvement or collaboration. For cities to work therefore, there is a need for strategic powers of control which bring organisation and order. But, on the other hand, for cities to be malleable spaces which are friendly, inclusive, communal and vibrant; there needs to be a bit of disorder so that individuals have agency and input over the spaces and environments they occupy. For the city to be a space which an individual can remake, it needs to allow the agency of its inhabitants. To invite the individual to reform it into a space they could live in.