“it will be like living in a concrete prison, but I suppose I don’t mind that to a certain point”

As mentioned previously, there are a lot of public art projects going on in London right now, or maybe they were always going on, even before I arrived.  In any case there are a lot.  I’ve been twice this past week to one of these projects, called The Floating Cinema.  It’s a cinema on a boat, that sails through London’s canals, stopping at various points for screenings and events, or doing boat tours.  It’s also part of this Create London series of events in London’s east end, funded by a mix of public and private money, and as a sort of run up to the Olympic games (the stadium is being built in this part of town).

The boat has been for the last few days parked outside a restaurant.  One of the funny things about the project is that the boat only has 12 seats, so I actually didn’t get a seat the first time I showed up, on a Saturday night.  But they were also showing the film in the restaurant.  The first film I saw was called I Utopia London, an interesting film about modernist architecture and the welfare state.  I already knew a lot of the connections between modernist architecture and utopian planning, but not the specifics of the British context (which I am here to research, I suppose).  I have written previously about this in Germany with the Bauhaus artists and also in the postwar American context, the latter of which was my way of psychologically dealing with the city of Irvine in my first year of graduate school.  Coming from Victorian San Francisco, I was scandalized by the sunny aggresivity of brutalism, though the political associations of each style were reversed.  Anyway, Tom Cordell, the filmmaker, very tightly associated the postwar modernist moment in British architecture with the dream of the socialist state.  One of the interesting suppositions was that concrete as a material began to be viewed as harsh and ugly only after it was associated with ‘failed’ council housing (or, perhaps in my case, a failing public university).  The polemic was a bit too much for me, and in fact I didn’t talk to the director afterward (there was a Q&A plus misc drinking) because I couldn’t figure out how to pose a question that didn’t seem like a criticism.  I suppose I could have asked him what he makes of Britian’s future, built over its welfare state past, an area known as the docklands.  This area is now filled with ostentatious, modernist buildings, though now they are made of glass, of course.  Example – Morgan Stanley:

Last night I went again to see a short film called I know it’s not a palace.   This time I got a seat on the boat!

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As mentioned, the boat is not very big, just a canal boat (which has its own history).  But it was a fairly comfortable, let’s say cozy, place to watch a film.  Before they showed their own film, the artists (known as fugitive images) showed a film made in the 30s on a similar theme – slum clearance and the new social housing in the east end (and this was before the war), called Housing Problems.  Apparently this documentary is very well known among people who know things.

Then they showed I know it’s not a palace, which is about the clearance of the Haggerston council estate (housing project), once a model of new social housing in London, now run down.  Over the past thirty years or so public housing has been transferred into the hands of housing associations.  These associations are non-profit, and responsible for most social housing now.  The idea is that the associations are funded entirely or mostly by the rent from the tenants, rather than through the government.  The estate is going to be turned into luxury housing (the area around it has gentrified); as is always the case, private development always has to be accompanied by social housing of the same type and quality nearby (by law), and all the current residents have been guaranteed an apartment in the new units.  It’s all still a bit complicated for me now, but I think that’s the gist.  Anyway the film, which had just been cut that morning, was quite interesting.  There was no narration, only the voices of a few residents.  As was clear in the Q&A after, the filmmakers (who also reside in the estate) are open to the ambiguity of the situation, showing both how the council had let the apartments get into a run down state, and also how there was something valuable in the communal aspect of the space.  Above all I think they wanted to express the sense of ambivalence of the place, being neither fully funded by the council, which let it go to waste, nor yet rebuilt.  In fact, in 2007 the council started boarding up the windows of residents who had already left.  The boards were orange, which sort of dramatically illustrated the transitional aspect of the place.

The Q&A after was really interesting, and also featured a couple graduate students working on the estate, one as an anthropologist and the other looking at public art.  The quote in the title comes from an interview that Teresa, the anthropologist, did with a resident, about what he thinks the new development will be like.   Actually the discussion got a little heated, since a lot of the people who lived there also came to see the film (including a lot of their friends).  One person said he didn’t like the film because it was his everyday reality, and so could find nothing (good) to say about it.  Which seems to indicate the effectiveness of the film’s documentary realism, in an odd way.  Other people wanted the film to be more political in one way or another, showing the ‘humanity’ of the residents, or showing the residents in a more positive light (the film focused on two residents who were disabled, and obviously not everyone who lives there is disabled).  Anyway, I got a chance to talk to the filmmakers after.  In fact the best part of the night was they invited everyone who stuck around to a pub down the street.  Everyone else, it turns out, were friends with the directors, and so I was the only random person there.  They were all really lovely and smart, and invited me over for a coffee at the estate, and we had a long (by british standards) night of drinking and talking.

These posts are getting a little long; sorry.  I’ll be back to pictures of ducks and food soon, I promise.

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