artists and athletes of to-morrow

Yesterday I went with my roommate Neil to the Hackney Wicked festival.  It was in a neighborhood called Hackney Wick (hence the title), which is an area to the east of victoria park that mostly consists in warehouses and factories, now disused, many of which have apparently become art studios.  You know how it is.  The festival was basically a big open studios event covering several of these warehouses, plus music and food and some events along the way.   I liked one of these warehouses that was called “The Peanut Factor,” because it is a peanut factory, still.  It has been quite warm of late (ie. 80 degrees!  no rain!  only 40%-60% cloud cover!), so it was nice sunday to be out and about.

As for the art itself…well, you know, open studios.  And Sally the open studios duck would like you to reserve judgment.

Weren’t expecting that, were you?  Hm, well, there were some interesting things as well, especially in the photography and video department.  As these things go, it was more of an excuse for people to drink in the sun and have a good time.  Good times also meant a Coracle Regatta, which involves racing impractically shaped boats across a canal.  Coracles come from the celts, and maybe they were better at rowing them than the woman who, in attempting to secure third place, fell into the canal.  This is quite unhealthy, I beleive.

Hackney Wick is right next to be what used to be a stretch of basically unused land.  Perhaps it had an industrial use some time ago.  Anyway this stretch of land is now quite in use: it’s the 2012 olympic park.  Before I came here, the Olympics were not really on my radar.  I remember when London outbid Paris for the games, and seeing people cheering somewhat irrationally.  I never quite understood why a city, especially a major metropolis like London, would want an Olympic games, unless there was already a stadium that could be used.  London, however, is building the entire Olympic site – stadium, track, swimming area, Olympic village, etc.

What I realized when I came here is that this is very much the focal point of London right now.  Not spatially; more that the city’s energy, if you will, is sort of oriented toward the event (‘temperature’ seems to be the idiom here, though not commonly used).  There is a kind of nervous tension around the games.  The games, or really the park itself, seems to represent something about contemporary London.

The site is in East London, an area that in 60 years has been: a bombed out working class neighborhood,  a gateway  for immigrants, a forgotten, post-industrial economically-depressed zone (which it still is), cheap housing for middle class artists and the like, and now, all those, plus the sites of banks and major corporations.  The body in charge of this latest change is the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODL), whose motto is likewise representative of the unwitting honesty of developers: Demolish. Dig. Design.

The Olympic site itself is attached to what will be the largest shopping center in Europe.   I still don’t really understand how a site that will be used for four weeks, then be closed for a full year after the Olympics while the city decides what to do with it could be a catalyst for urban “regeneration,” but apparently it is.  The power of synchronized swimming, I suppose.

The park is under construction and completely gated off, which fairly tight security.  What’s interesting to me, is that the same condition – unused, industrial space – that allows for the profusion of artists and architects working and making ‘pop up‘ projects in this area is what makes the place also ideal for more upscale development, which has already begun.  I suppose that’s obvious, and yet maybe not obvious enough, since the area’s ‘edgy’ , artsy reputation has been specifically encouraged by developers as a way to increase the value and cachet of the area (they don’t hide this in any way).

A few weeks ago I saw author Iain Sinclair speak.  Sinclair is seemingly quite popular right now,  which is befitting for a calmly manic chronicler of east london and anti-Olympic polemicist (perhaps of dubious credibility).  This is most manifest in his latest work, Ghost Milk, which I’m now reading.  His writing at parts is a little too reminiscent of the excesses of beat-gen writing, but at least he has nothing to be optimistic about.  And he evokes the way the stadium, in many ways, is dredging up London’s buried industrial history:

You could not nominate, in all of a London, more challenging ground for a landscape blitz, a ticking-clock assault on the devastated residue of industrial history: insecticide and fertilizer works, paint factories, distillers of gin, gas mantel manufactures, bone grinders, importers of fish-mush, seething dunes of radian maggots.  Waste: dumped, buried.  Disturbed. Distributed…

The Olympic Park was a newsreel of the fall of Berlin run backwards…what remains in these ravished topographies is a category of war-zone architecture: concrete bunkers, electrified fences, unexplained posts, burnt-out warehouses, stripped woodland, fouled water.  Grand Project development is accidental  archeology.  A séance with future ruins.

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“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.

Paul the 80s movie duck

A couple nights ago I went to something called Folly For a Flyover.  It is a cinema space that some architects and artists set up underneath a road overpass in a east end neighborhood called Hackney Wick.  There seem to be a lot of people right now in London interested in ‘re-purposing’ public space or using spaces that are not really used for much else, but that exist.  From the creators: “Hand-built with local, reclaimed and donated materials, the Folly draws influence from the surrounding red-brick buildings of Hackney Wick, posing as an imaginary piece of the area’s past, a building trapped under the motorway.”  So there you go: reclaimed materials, imaginary past.

Anyway the space was quite interesting.  I took a bus line that stops near my house all the way to the end, and then walked a bit with another confused person to the underpass.  The site is actually right next to where the 2012 Olympic park, which seems to be in a lot of people’s thoughts as they think about London’s cityscape these days.  There were a few people there and many more showed up, with many bicycles.  Even Paul rode his bicycle there.

I managed to get a ticket to the show and they had drinks and popcorn and bagels inside (there wasn’t a kitchen or anything). The space is pretty simple: the screen underneath the road, with the rows of seats using the natural incline from the base of the underpass to where it almost meets the road above.  It seemed to be able to fit a fair number of people.  I’m bad at guessing numbers, but maybe 300 people?  Quite a few.  Next to it they had made a little building with brick-shaped pieces of wood, and inside there was the cafe.  It looked like a very big game of jenga.   The wood bricks must have been stuck together somehow, and generally didn’t move, but I did at one point happen to be standing next to a piece that sort of spun around when you pushed it.  This did not lessen the jenga feeling.

The people there were all very hip, of course.  Once everyone gathered in front of the screen, I realized why I like seeing movies around other people again.  It was a very convivial, friendly, goofy, tipsy crowd.  Of course I’m not sure you get these same elements at most movie theaters, and my mood is usually ruined after half and hour of commercials anyway.   They are mostly showing cult 80s movies and/or animation here; tonight they were showing Flash Gordon along with a couple shorts (pictures below).  I had not seen Flash Gordon before and so didn’t realize that it’s FUCKING HILARIOUS.  And it wasn’t just the effect of being around so many other people who were very wiling to laugh and cheer.  By the end I almost thought the makers of the movie must have been aware of how ridiculous they were being.  They were aware, right?

Anyway, between the space and the movie and the crowd I had a pretty good time.  From what I gather, these spaces proliferate in the summer, for obvious reasons.  I also think there is a lot going on in the run up to the Olympic games though, in terms of wanting to make the area more of a destination (rather than simply ‘up and coming’).  I mean, this whole project is funded from a grant from Bank of America through this thing called CreateLondon, itself funded by a mix of public and private money.  But fun is fun, I suppose.

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study

I’ve been working at the British Library.  I didn’t intend to come to London in order to work there – as in, I wasn’t aware of any special thing that they had that I had to come here to read.  It turns out they do have a number of primary sources that are useful to me that are not available in the states, however, mostly because they are able to get material from any library in London (and further?).

They have an interesting system here.  First, you have to apply for a reader pass, which involves proving your identity and address and giving them a list of things you are interested in reading.  The pass is for three years, and you don’t have to ever request the things you write down at that time, but I suppose they just want to make sure you are for real.  Anyone can go into the library, but you need to show your pass to get into the reader rooms, and there are like seven, for different subjects, on various floors of the library.

You can’t bring any food or drink or pens into the reading rooms, and have to put everything you are taking into the room in a clear plastic bag that they provide.  There are checkers at the door.  Because of this there is a room where they have lockers for a 1-pound deposit (that you get back).  So you go in with your clear plastic bag and computer and you take a seat.  The seats are in rows of 10, five on each side, and are big though not separated from the ones to the sides, which I like.  Then you request books online, and enter in your seat number.  There is a light at every seat that is supposed to go off when your books are ‘ready,’ but I don’t think those work anymore, so you just go after an hour to the central desk and they give you your books.  You can only request 7 or so books per day, and you have to return them at the end of the day.  You can keep up to six of them on reserve however.  You can’t check anything out.

Though I like checking things out, and working at cafes or at home, all of this has the effect of creating a very studious and serious atmosphere.  The rooms themselves are large and bright (the main humanities room extends up three floors, with other ‘mezzanine’ style reading rooms partially obscuring the sunlight that is coming in from the windows in the  ceiling).  There are solemn, leather bounded reference books on all the walls of the room, adding to the effect.  There are people of all ages there, including people who are still in ‘uni’ (college), but the atmosphere and hoops you have to jump through are not conducive to going there just to hang out and sort of study, or maybe that’s what they’re doing but it’s less noticeable in any case.  Anyway, most people at least seem to be quite engaged/absorbed in their work, and everyone has lots of books and notes on their desk, and of course it’s very quiet.  Only the sounds of typing, and pencil writing, are audible.  When you leave you have to open your laptop and show it to the bouncers, to prove that you haven’t slipped a book into your computer, I suppose.

Oh and you can leave all your stuff at your seat!  Your seat is your seat for the day, so you just leave all your books there.  People even leave their computers there!  All the seats are very much out in the open, so it’s not like carrels where you don’t really see the other people around you.  I suppose this is why people feel safe (though some people do bring those security cables)?  Or maybe they just screen out the hooligans.  Kidding.  Anyway I usually take my computer when I go for lunch, but leave it when I just go out for a coffee.  There is a restaurant and cafe area in the library, which is where people socialize, and another cafe outside of the library (and a pret a manger across the street, which I feel guilty for liking).  So it creates a nice environment, with people working inside the reader rooms, taking breaks outside.  Also the room with the lockers is, not exactly social, but a place where all the workers gather together at the beginning and end of the day (variously defined).  It’s where I hear the most accents, American accent included.  It’s not really a community of scholars but more an illusion of a community of scholars in a sort-of public setting.  But illusions make me more scholarly.

Though I am mostly hard at work, of course, one can’t help but notice the people around you a bit.  It is very interesting to watch people as they work.  Yesterday the woman diagonally to my left was writing, and had very furrowed, quasi-frustrated expression on her face.  She was sounding the sentences out and moving her hands in sort of a circle to help herself think.  It was all very familiar.  Actually I wanted to talk to her because I saw she was reading a book called Saving London and another called Heritage Obsession, but, you know, library.  The woman diagonally to my right had something else going on.  When I first sat down I thought maybe she had just heard some really bad news.  But I think she was just sick, but also distracted, either by work or by something else.  She looked up a lot to think (which I do too), and stared very intensely at people or at the air, and had a very fraught and vexed look on her face.  I was afraid to catch her stare; it was just too much.  I wonder if something was going on or if work was just making her a little crazy, which happens too.

That I find this system nice is peculiar to me because it’s similar to what they did in Italy, but the Italian libraries drove me insane.  But there are some noticeable differences.  First of all, in Bologna at least, there is not a central library.  Each department has its own library.  In 2003 there was no computerized system – they still used a card system (in fact they probably had computers in the renaissance but have since degenerated into card chaos).  Some of the books were just on the shelves to get, but for the rest you had to get a slip of paper, write down the book number, and take it to the desk for them to get it.  The people at the desk don’t work from 2-5pm, of course, and not at all on Thursday afternoons.  They just sit there.  The photocopy room is outside the library.  You can’t check books out, but you can request them inside the library, take them next door to photocopy, and then bring them back.  The photocopy machine requires a card that you put money on.  The woman selling the cards doesn’t work after 2pm on any day.  I entered a library (for the literature department) early on in my time there, when I didn’t really know Italian and had no experience with this sort of system.  It was a very frustrating afternoon.  I managed to get a photocopy card seconds before the woman left, and get the books that I needed even though it was a bit after 2pm.  The fact that one of the books was coincidentally literally inches away from the arm of the person at the desk helped my case, and the person there nicely handed it to me despite the fact that he was on his break.

Anyway, back to the British library. This piece is on the lower level.  It’s, as my mom would say, neat.  It’s by Patrick Hughes and it’s called Paradoxy Moron.

neat.

London

Hello!  I’ve been in London for ten days, spending the summer here doing research.  I’m not sure I actually liked London during previous visits here.  I thought it was too busy, and coming after Italy or Berlin it seemed, I don’t know, vulgar or something.  And I couldn’t handle the food/cost situation.  But this is my first extended time here, and so far I like the city a lot more.  I’m also coming here to study it, so I have maybe a different attitude.

First, I like being in a walking city again.  I feel like I do more exercise just getting where I need to go here than I ever do on a daily basis in Los Angeles.  Along with that comes density, of course, and people and crowds which can be awful (in the subway, for example (sorry, tube)), but mostly give a sense of excitement.  I’ve of course found my vegetarian cafe for my daily coffee, called the Gallery Cafe.  This one is open relatively late and has a full menu plus beer and wine, and shows movies or has music or whatever some evenings.  Finding this was of course first order of business.

My research is on how urban development here has exacerbated or been used to mediate social or political tensions here, particularly looking at the role of ‘nature,’ however defined.  It might be an opportune time to study such a thing, because it seems like there are a lot of artists and architects create garden-y public spaces.  The benefits of ‘community gardens’ seem now obvious, or as a fairly normal thing to do with space, but I’m still wondering why public art is taking this form (as one of my sub-questions, perhaps).  Especially since not all of the spaces primarily gear themselves towards sustainable food production.

So one of these spaces is called the Urban Physic Garden, which is in a space near the tate modern that changes in theme every year.  Last year it was an orchard.  This year the theme seems to be medicinal plants, though they also have all sorts of other things and one of the most interesting thing about it is just the way they’ve laid out the space.

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A local non-profit was there when I went, holding an event to draw attention to the space.  This mostly meant a child’s drawing area and balloons, but they were very nice.  As you can see, I found the space very photogenic, especially the way that the wooden structures create layers in any image.  I also liked the juxtaposition of the garden and the ‘city,’ of course, being that it was right next to an overground line.  The space is also non-functional in the sense that I don’t think they intend for the plants they are growing to be used for any medicinal purposes.  It’s more a museum of medicinal plants, complete with lunch-lectures about the topic and others.  So the place itself seems to be a contained spatial art project, and I’m curious to know why this and not some other things.  I think the children might be the key here, because there is among these spaces a desire to get children involved, and to teach them and the adults about nature, or food, or sustainable living, or art.

Panorama

I went the other day to a quixotic and surprising space, the Velaslavasay Panorama.  I had heard about this place a few times from some friends, without ever totally figuring out what it was exactly.  As in, a panorama of what, exactly?  The space is an old theater near USC.  The first space we entered was a small room with descriptions of 19th century panoramas.  I gathered that it was some way to represent frontier spaces in a dynamic fashion, but the descriptions themselves were not as revealing or straightforwardly didactic as a typical museum inscription.  Then we turned around, and saw this:

This was the moving mirror, which incidentally didn’t move.  If it did, apparently it would show a series of paintings made on the frontier.  So the statement of dynamicism was somewhat humorously qualified.  It’s difficult to describe, but the feeling was one of looking at something and not being able to quite place, of their being a disjuncture between what you might expect and what you are trying to look at that’s hard to place.  It reminded us very much of the Museum of Jurassic Technology.

We then explored the theater area, thinking that perhaps here was the thing we came to see, and it was something to see in itself.  But it was not the panorma, which was at the top of some stairs.  And, indeed, what was there was a panorama:  a large painting on the walls of a circular room.  This painting was seemingly of an apocalyptic or alien arctic scene.  The effect of the painting was furthered by props located within a few feet of the wall, which  represented ice floats and so forth.  The panoramic painting was accompanied by an ambient soundtrack, which consisted in entirely ‘natural’ (sounds of wind, waves, etc) until the sound of a human chorus emerged.  All this time the light of the room was changing, to feature certain parts over others.  It’s hard to explain.

Turns out, yes, in the 19th century, travelers used these sorts of panoramic paintings to give people a sense of what it was like to be in strange new lands.  This panorama was a recreation of that, or at least that idea.   In general, most panoramas would not have any sound, however, or alternating lights, so this panorama was more of an ‘art’ piece.  And yes, the person who made it is connected to the Museum of Jurassic Technology.  Once we learned these things, the strange lighted plaque saying “Effluence of the North” made more sense, i.e. as a title for the piece.

There was also a nice garden, with rabbits.

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I also took this video of the panorama during the voices-light-changing moment.  As soon as I started the video the area I was in turned dark.  I thought about turning it off, but then delayed, and then I was committed; this cycle of though repeated for some time until the moment of illumination.  Dramatic, anticlimactic, confusing, mildly funny:

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