Estates of mind

Not long after I came to London I went with friends to see a demolition. A huge housing block of local authority flats was about to be torn down in Hackney Marshes. I went along and was suitably impressed by the crash and bang and the big cloud of dust that ensued. A film I shot at the time is long lost (and was on Video 8 anyway) but the experience left an impression on me.

Why was this housing which only dated from the 1960’s being torn down so soon? And why the general antipathy to living in a high-rise? I grew up in a city of high rises; Vancouver has little space and high density living has long been an option. High, proud and luxurious.

I never got to live in one, they are a bit too deluxe for the student I was at the time. My aunt did live in a fabulous flat in West Vancouver overlooking the water.

After I lived in the UK for a while I learned about the betrayal of public housing and how early it happened: the paint not even dry the flats were falling apart due to shoddy building practices and corruption. Not enough housing was built in the first place, so only the most desperate and least capable to support themselves got it.

Then I got to live in public housing ( a hard to let estate in the then-obscure area of Hoxton) and found that all that was said about it was true: official neglect, official betrayal and official corruption, bolstered by a frenzied housing market (in London) that took no account of the needs of working Londoners and the businesses that must be served. But the estate itself was fun, lively, a good place to  live.

haggerston view

This year I have been involved with two projects that engage with the idea of public housing. The first is the film Estate by Andrea Zimmerman is a documentary set on the housing estate where we both live, as we prepare to leave to a new “regenerated” estate. In 2009-10 Zimmerman’s collective Fugitive Images made an art installation on the same estate and asked me to write an essay about it for the book Critical Cities. The first thing I had noticed about the estate upon moving in was that all the buildings and the streets are named after the works of English novelist Samuel Richardson. Richardson’s books are concerned with the subject of Virtue and I speculated in the essay (which you can read here) that whomever had responsibility in the Council to name the streets and flats of the new development may have hoped that some ideas of bourgeois virtue would rub off on the “deserving poor” who were getting the flats. Although by the 1930’s Richardson’s novels were not exactly popular, they were well known enough to the literati.

Andrea picked up on the Richardsonian elements of the estates and has used it as a structuring device in her film which combines documentary with staged enactments. And I have a role: I get to play Pamela, and have a sword duel with with Clarissa (played by anthropologist Therese Henningsen). Thinking back to Dr Ian Ross’s fantastic 18th Century Novel class at UBC, where I first encountered Richardson it’s funny to think I am doing this … As they say, no knowledge is ever wasted. Even the fencing I did in high school.

Second, and for me the bigger project, is one called THE KING’S LAND and this is also about an estate. The Kingsland estate is located south of the Regent Canal in a kind of backstreet behind a railway bridge. It too dates from the period 1930s to 1950s and much of it is bricked up and semi derelict. We were given a studio on the estate and after running it for a year or so we decided to take the art out of the studio on to the walls of the estate. Nazir Tanbouli has been doing murals on the estate and I have been following him with a camera.

The film we’re making, THE KING’S LAND, is less about housing itself than about the relationship between art and life. It is raising a lot of questions. What happens when you “potlatch” and give art, because you can, because art is your munificence? What happens when you give it to those who don’t think they “deserve” art? Many local people have expressed to Naz that “you should not be doing this here, you should be in a gallery making money.” When art is about exorcising inner demons, how does that make the work look? The story is about man vs beast – the best inside and the beast outside: facing a district full of the faces of of poverty, depression, angst; broken horrible houses and filthy streets,. And about man vs. nature: the weather has been especially relentless this year.

Lastly, I am working on my own artist book about both estates: still photos (below) and text that meditates on Bachelard’s Poetics of Space.