Last Sunday I participated in a fascinating presentation and discussion around critical urbanism. Alongside film maker Andrea Luka Zimmerman and artist Cathy Ward, we discussed the position of art and the city, the role of social housing and how artists can avoid or minimise being instrumentalized particularly by developers.
These are all huge issues in today’s city. Today’s city, especially London, is a place where social housing is being demolished to make way for luxury flats – often bought as investments and left untenanted. Where workers such s paramedics, nurses, teachers and other professionals can never afford to buy a house or rent anything decent so they have to think twice about raising a family.
Iain Sinclair referred once to artists as the “shock troops of the developers” and he was right. In the past, it was simply about artists paving the way by making a place a bit trendy. This happened in my neighbourhood of Hoxton-Shoreditch. When I moved here as a student it was a wasteland. Aside from the Bricklayers’ and Charlie Wright’s there was nothing. You could not even get a cup of coffee. Now coffee is about all you can get, as many more functional businesses have shut up shop. In many ways I welcome that change since at least most of the social housing is intact (with some disgusting exceptions) and I like coffee (although we see to have gone from the sublime ot the ridiculous, in cups of coffee per head of population).
But now developers are actually actually instrumentalizing art and co-opting artists to make developments seem more attractive and to create a façade of a ‘give back’ to the ‘community.’ This is almost always less than it seems. Also I notice that, in an area such as East London which is so ethnically and culturally diverse, the artistic profiles championed are very white and middle class! Typified by the posh white boys doing Banksy-lite (lite as in, without political content) on a developers hoarding. Or the other posh white boys doing a big ‘street art’ piece in Shoreditch High St – oops no wait it is actually an ad for Red Bull. (where do the developers find these guys anyway? Did they go to public school with them)
Is there another way? This is what we talked about and we offered our own experiences – and art works – and discussed the positives and negatives. What was great is that we found some like minded people at the event, and the conversation began. We did not go there with solutions, but with a desire to find solutions – and that is for the long haul not a 2 hour slot.
Coda – one of the most hilarious things has to be the naming of one development as Avant-Garde Tower. It’s just off Brick Lane – traditionally an area of high-visibility immigrant culture – when I first visited London it still had a Jewish presence (a kosher café on Whitechapel High St was a haunt of mine), but was largely Bangladeshi except on the Sunday ‘Cockney’ market. Over the years it became a trendy go-to market and entertainment district, and it is definitely a lot of fun. Many of the houses there were incredibly run down. So it is good that new housing has been built – but I do object to it being all ‘luxury’ i.e..totally unaffordable to the average citizen, and the egregious use of the term avant-garde is just laughable.
On the other hand, the real meaning of avant-garde is ‘the foremost division or the front part of an army; advance guard; van.’ If the purpose is to cleanse the city of its working class population with military precision, then perhaps it is the vanguard, and it is aptly named.
(Jeez I remember studying Marxist theory at uni and it was just a theory … Pass the exam, move on.