July 2018

Enclave Review (Cork: Eire, 2019)

If you drive into Norwich from the northern suburbs, there is one building that dominates the approach into the centre: Sovereign House, perhaps the most loved and most maligned building in the city.  This vast, derelict brutalist spaceship is glittering with windows, enough even to reflect back the famously enormous East Anglian skies.  This decaying intergalactic palace is the northern frontier of a down-at-heel complex called Anglia Square, comprised of a low-rent shopping plaza, semi-occupied office buildings and a cheap cinema, flanked by a couple of underused car parks.  Anglia Square was completed in 1968 and over the course of fifty years it has gotten both ever shabbier, and yet, somehow, ever more alluring, as artists and small businesses have gradually made use of the clumsily planned development for all manner of activities (perhaps the most glaring planning error was that which resulted in the fine city’s only fly-over, which elevated St. Crispin’s Road while plunging the lower end of Magdalen Street literally into the shadows). Yet, regardless of Anglia Square and its environs being somewhat marooned and disconnected from the city centre, this enclave has gradually owned its disadvantage. It has been both revived by local artist-led organisations like Print to the People and OUTPOST Gallery and Studios, and kept alive by small shopkeepers (a butcher, a greengrocer, a discount store and a greasy spoon café) and their thrifty customers.  

The encroachment of speculative property acquisition in Norwich has certainly been slower than in other places a bit closer to London, such as Brighton and Margate.  However, in 2014, creeping gentrification finally reached Anglia Square, when it was acquired by a London-based investment company called Columbia Threadneedle plc, who made plans to demolish the entire complex and start again, building 1,200 homes, a leisure quarter, a 200-bed hotel, a multi-storey car park, a replacement cinema and a 25-storey tower block with a roof-level bar. These ‘uninspiring and unneighbourly’ plans have met with strong resistance from local shopkeepers, residents and the numerous artists who work in studios and workshops in the area, and those committed to preserving the city’s built environment, including the Norwich Society and Historic England.  A campaign group comprised of artists and activists called Angrier Square has been set up, and an online petition [Save our Norwich Skyline!].  Possibly as a way of softening the inevitable conclusion of their plans, the developers have couched their development scheme for Anglia Square in gradual yet finite terms, which articulate not a ‘short-term’ use for the doomed complex, but a ‘meanwhile use’.   

On a Friday evening in early July 2018, the whitewashed windows of a small shop unit on the ground level of Anglia Square shopping centre were wiped clean, revealing the interior of a new art gallery named LOWER.GREEN.  The gallery had been set up by artist-organisers Henry Newcomb and Jonathan P. Watts, with the intention of hosting 8 exhibitions, as well as talks and events, in a time-limited programme scheduled to unfold between July 2018 and March 2019. The project proceeded from an overt acknowledgement of the interrelationship of artist-led projects and processes of gentrification, as the founders observed in their first press release, ‘LOWER.GREEN might be seen as an accessory to a funeral procession, the centre’s manager the funeral director whose job it is to oversee the decline […]. Given Anglia Square’s fixed end point, driven by developers, we would argue that LOWER.GREEN is symptom rather than cause. If it is capital and not culture that is driving the Square’s development perhaps, then, we fulfil the developer’s agenda by “artwashing” the decline, painting over the concrete rot?’

‘Artwashing’ as a term first came into usage in cultural circles in 2015, in relationship to the ongoing dispute between local residents and art galleries in the Boyle Heights district of Los Angeles, where the local, predominantly Latino community had organized to protest against the spate of recent gallery openings which they viewed as an attack on their way of life.  I followed the coverage of the battle for Boyle Heights while writing my book, The DIY Movement in Art, Music and Publishing (2016), a tour of 14 ‘creative cities’ beginning in post-war San Francisco and ending in present-day Istanbul.  In researching that book, I studied closely the increasingly rapid processes of gentrification that have occurred in cities with artistic enclaves since the 1990s, such as the neighbourhoods of Hackney in London, Mitte in Berlin or Williamsburg in New York.  While in the post-WWII period the artistic capitals of London, New York and Berlin were relatively affordable for those in middle and lower income brackets, since the mid-1990s the globalization of capital facilitated by rapid technological advances has made living in these major cities increasingly expensive and challenging.  As artist Martha Rosler wrote in her collection of essays, Culture Class (2013), ‘New York’s SoHo and East Village had proved, by the late 1970s, that the transformation of old warehouses and decaying tenement districts into valuable real estate could be accomplished by allowing artists to live and work in them. […] Artists, in addition, were not going to organize and make life difficult for city governments.  In the following decades the SoHo model became paradigmatic for cities around the world.’

The process of property speculation and gentrification in London and New York and, to a lesser extent, Berlin has only accelerated since the 2008 financial crisis, as the model of economic growth based on property inflation has taken precedence over other considerations, such as quality of life, character of a place, social identities and community networks.  The sociologist Saskia Sassen described the rising living costs in these global cities as effecting ‘expulsions’ in her 2014 book Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy, which detailed “people, enterprises and places expelled from the core social and economic orders of our time” including the impoverished, refugees, minorities and the unemployed.  The idea of expulsion underpinned many of the works on display in the opening exhibition at LOWER.GREEN, which took its title, MEANWHILE, from the wording of the developers who plan to expel the occupiers of Anglia Square in the not too distant future.  Patrick Goddard’s wall-based work, The Mediterranean (view to the north) (2016), for example, asks the audience to see again and reflect upon a device designed to secure vacant buildings against breaking and entering by homeless people and squatters.  Godard presents an Orbis security shutter in the exhibition, both as an object of contemplation and as a non-view, a blocked entry.  Goddard has first-hand experience of these devices, having squatted in empty properties in East London for more than a decade and witnessed the impact of the criminalization of squatting in the UK in recent years under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012.  

Elsewhere, the redevelopment of London features in Danish artist Asta Meldal Lynge’s video work Showhome (2015), set in Tower Bridge, an area that has seen huge change in the last fifty years – once a busy international port, it was rendered obsolete once containers began to be unloaded directly onto trucks.  The watermen, lightermen and dock workers were made redundant and the warehouses and port buildings vacated, ready to be acquired by developers. The extension of the Jubilee Line in time for the millennium brought a new vision for the abandoned wharfs: one of condos, smart offices and expensive retail units.  As one commentator on Southwark Notes – whose regeneration?explains, this redevelopment has ‘changed the local character of the area from one of poor people and the type of shops and services poor people use and rely on to a landscape and culture of more well-off people and the mega shops and service industries they require.’ In Lynge’s video, an apparently glossy, professionally produced tour of a new development near Tower Bridge is spliced together with shuddering handheld footage of the area, before both narratives seem to break down and betray the false promises of real estate.   

Artistic enclaves have been identified as drivers of economic growth by several urban theorists, notably Richard Florida in his 2002 book, The Rise of the Creative Class, which argued that metropolitan regions with high concentrations of technology workers, artists, musicians, lesbians and gay men exhibit a higher level of economic development.  While the processes of gentrification are cast positively (as narratives of economic growth) in the work of Florida, the rising rents and living costs associated with gentrification also cause displacement and alienation of longer-term residents. While Florida has long maintained that the key to rejuvenating a city is to attract young creative professionals who will then bring about economic transformation by attracting investors, it is less clear how the ensuing real estate acquisition and gentrification serves either local creative practitioners or the wider community. Thomas Sugrue, author of influential study of the rise and fall of Detroit, The Origins of the Urban Crisis (1996) says that, ‘There’s not a lot of evidence that the tourism, downtown-oriented and professional-oriented urban redevelopment policies really grapple with the questions of how to provide stable secure employment for working-class and lower-income folks.’ Instead, Sugrue emphasizes the need to invest in education systems and the creation of employment opportunities for low-income residents.  

In Norwich, the Angrier Square campaign group has demanded an alternative redevelopment proposal for the northern inner city, which includes affordable social housing, rent controls to allow extant business to continue, and the provision of green space and a playground. Significantly, while the establishment of LOWER.GREEN and the MEANWHILE exhibition are informed by the sense of precarity that accompanies artist-led initiatives, the project also points to a solution that would better serve the needs of the local community.  Their position was made clear in the poster for the opening exhibition, which was printed in the style of a newspaper hoarding for local newspaper the Eastern Daily Press, known as the EDP.  The legend read, in bold black capitals on foolscap A3 paper, ANGLIA SQUARE GETS NEW GREEN.  The wording of the poster consciously gestured towards the history of Norwich, and the surrounding region of East Anglia, as a region richly fertile in many ways: agricultural, politically radical and the source of much innovative literature, dating from 14th century mystic Julian of Norwich, who penned her Revelationsfrom her anchorite cell, in which she opined, ‘And in good time things do evidently come together…’  One of the other most notable books associated with the region is W. G. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn (1995, in English translation 1998), which underscores the palpable sense in East Anglia that events inhere in the places where they occur – they never vacate their place of happening. Sebald offers a vision of East Anglia as a landscape through which dreams and visions can surface and coalesce:  ‘A pond becomes a lake, a breeze becomes a storm, a handful of dust is a desert, a grain of sulphur in the blood is a volcanic inferno.  What manner of theatre is it, in which we are at once playwright, actor, stage manager, scene painter and audience?’  The manner of theatre which Sebald outlines is exactly that which we find unfolding within LOWER.GREEN, in the practices of the artists exhibited in the MEANWHILE exhibition.  It is the same manner of theatre that took place in Norwich circa AD 60, when Iceni queen Boudicca led an unsuccessful revolt against the Roman occupation.  It was the same manner of theatre that unfolded beneath an Oak Tree at Hethersett in 1549, where Robert and William Kett of Wymondham, assembled their men before marching on Norwich to air their grievances concerning the enclosure of the common lands and the rising cost of living. Various enclosure hedges were ‘thrown down’ by their respective followers, as the revolt got underway. LOWER.GREEN is a quieter intervention, but one that has none the less transfigured a small shop unit, through Newcomb and Watts’ actions, stage management, scene painting and the help of their engaged local audience.

MEANWHILE featured the work of six artists from the United Kingdom, Hungary, Sweden and North America, who speak in different ways about the politics of urban regeneration.  Perhaps the work within the exhibition that most successfully draws out the themes of self-reliance amid regeneration is Great Yarmouth-based artist Kaavous Clayton’s ad-hoc furniture.  Clayton’s work is a revisiting of an earlier body of work, which he built as adjuncts to existing buildings around Norwich in the early 2000s. He would, for example, attach a fold-down chair to the side of a building, under cover of darkness.   His intervention would be discovered and used for a period of time, before being removed by the City Council. For MEANWHILE Clayton accepted an invitation from LOWER.GREEN to realise a series of items of furniture from materials salvaged from the gallery refit.  At the opening, Clayton’s modular furniture appeared in the guise of an upright sculptural assemblage, a bench and a table, but all of the units have been designed to be slotted together in three different formations, to be used anew in altered formulations in the LOWER.GREEN space for the duration that the gallery remains open. This meanwhile furniture Clayton called Sometime Support Systems (Supersave Series) 1–3 (2018), both memorialising the memory of the disposable pound-shop that previously occupied the gallery space – and acknowledging the value of artistic communities that may similarly form, build, and then later disperse.

At the exhibition opening, LOWER.GREEN co-organisers Newcomb and Watts were kept busy not only serving beers to guests from behind Clayton’s modular table, but also demonstrating that Chris Alton’s A shared interest in the bounce (2014) was not only available for sitting on, but could also be repurposed as a particularly challenging surface on which to attempt to play table tennis.  Alton’s work was based upon the Camden Bench, a piece of concrete street furniture, designed to offer a limited range of use to the general public, introduced to the London borough in 2012.  Intended only as a temporary seat, the Camden Bench is an inhospitable update on the traditional park bench, designed as it is to ‘be as inclusive as possible whilst resisting criminal and anti-social behaviour’. The recesses at the front and back of the bench have apparently been construed to allow the public to store bags behind their legs out of reach of opportunistic thieves, while the lack of slots and crevices in the surfaces of the bench serves to deter those wishing to stash drugs.  The surface of the Camden Bench is specially treated to repel dirt, water, graffiti and fly-posters.
While the designers claim that it offers a more inclusive place to sit, with gentle undulations that provide seating at different heights, its uneven surface makes the bench impossible for homeless people to sleep on. In 2014, in response to what he perceived as the disguised hostility of this street furniture, Alton began coordinating an ad-hoc table tennis league around benches in the City of London, deliberating subverting their design for pleasure.  For MEANWHILE at LOWER.GREEN, a replica of the Camden Bench was constructed by the set builder Tom Clarke and finished by Russell Eade, from measurements taken in the street after repeated failed attempts to source technical drawings from the fabricator. During the run of the MEANWHILE exhibition the bench was used to host a table tennis tournament, realising the promise from the exhibition poster of creating a clearing, a ‘new green’ for Anglia Square. This clearing for play recalls those places described by Johan Huizinga, in his important study, Homo Ludens: The Play Element in Culture (1949): ‘The arena, the card-table, the magic circle, the temple, the stage, the screen, the tennis court, the court of justice, etc., are all in form and function play-grounds, i.e. forbidden spots, isolated, hedged round, hallowed, within which special rules obtain.  All are temporary worlds within the ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart.’  

The idea of the playground or ‘new green’ in Anglia Square also has a particular resonance, given that the majority of real estate developers make very inadequate provision for public green spaces in their redevelopment plans.  The erosion of leisure facilities made available to the poor by landowners has a long history, which dates back to the 19thcentury introduction of the Enclosure Laws and the beginnings of industrialisation. In their seminal book The Village Labourer (1911), J.L and Barbara Hammond wrote about the significance of the leisure time that had been part and parcel of rural life for generations. They documented practices which were undermined by the Enclosure Laws and the mechanization of agriculture, such as ‘sauntering after cattle’ on the open common, and at twilight gathering on the village green to ‘play down the setting sun’.  The Hammonds showed how post-Enclosure England had been transformed from a country of commons and common fields to one of large enclosed farms with power concentrated in the hands of relatively few people.  It also revealed the resentment amongst many landowners of the leisure time enjoyed by peasants.  Enclosure was justified by some landowners on the basis that it would inspire peasants to work harder: for instance, Middleton’s Report on Middlesex concluded that the moral effects of commons was injurious to the public as ‘it gives their minds an improper bias and inculcates a desire to live, from that time forward, without labour, or at least with as little as possible.’ Arbuthnot, in his An Inquiry into the Connection between the Present Price of Provisions and the Size of Farms, (1773), further opined, ‘The benefit which they are supposed to reap from commons […] is in many instances an essential injury to them, by being made a plea for their idleness; for, some few excepted, if you offer them work, they will tell you that they must go to look up their sheep, cut furzes, get their cow out of the pond, or perhaps, say they must take their horse to be shod, that he may carry them to a horse-race or a cricket-match.’ 

Such ideas about poor people not being entitled to leisure or rest persist today, as pointed out by Alton’s subversion of the Camden Bench.   Similarly, another artist whose work was presented in the MEANWHILE exhibition, San Francisco-based Sarah Ross, playfully draws attention to hostile architectural features in Los Angeles designed to prevent loitering in public places, through an edition of four leisure jogging suits called Archisuits (2005-06) made to circumvent those inhospitable architectural structures. Ross explains, ‘The suits include the negative space of the structures and allow a wearer to fit into, or onto, structures designed to deny them.’ In the photographs documenting the work shown in the MEANWHILE exhibition, a person wearing an Archisuit with a huge wedge attached to the back is able to rest against a sloping wall at the junction of Detroit Street while a second, similarly cushioned by another special costume designed by Ross, is shown napping on a bus bench, despite the rigid metal seat dividers intended to prevent horizontal repose. 

The timing of Ross’s work relates closely to processes of gentrification that have unfolded in LA in recent years.  Up until 2005, downtown LA was considered undesirable, owing to the significant homeless populations there.  In the 1970s then-mayor Tom Bradley had decided to concentrate all the county resources for the homeless in the then under-populated downtown area, making it the designated zone for shelters, medical facilities, soup kitchens and other services for destitute people in the city.  However, since the mid-2000s, downtown LA has seen significant development, with many art spaces opening there, notably Ooga Booga #2 at Mission Road and Night Gallery, which initially, like Düsseldorf’s 1950s artists’ group Zero, offered a ‘nocturnal platform’ for viewing art.  As LA’s downtown area has become increasingly gentrified, this has led to increased awareness of the drug addicted, mentally ill people camping out on the streets of downtown LA. An article that appeared in The Guardian in March 2015 entitled, ‘Battle Lines Are Drawn in LA’s Urban War’, detailed how a tent city is erected on the downtown streets nightly between 9pm and 6am by the 3,000-6,000 homeless people who live downtown – who together constitute 10% of downtown’s current population.  Ross’s Archisuits, like Alton’s An Interest in the Bounce, uses playful humour to bring home the bleak and dehumanising forces of gentrification:  sometimes there is nothing more serious than a joke, to paraphrase Freud’s The Joke and Its Relation to the Unconscious (1905).

MEANWHILE also included works by the Hungarian-born artist Andi Schmied, who has a relationship with Norwich and the city’s artist-led OUTPOST gallery dating back to 2014, when he was invited by that gallery to spend a month making work in Gildengate House, home to OUTPOST Studios, which is one of the buildings currently threatened by the redevelopment plans for Anglia Square. Gildengate House is currently used to house studios for more than 80 artists, but was formerly the headquarters of Her Majesty’s Stationery Office (HMSO), along with the nearby Sovereign House, the crumbling brutalist ‘cruise liner in the sky’, both of which were designed and realised by Alan Cooke Associates, beginning in 1966 as part of the re-envisioning of inner north Norwich.  Following his 2014 residency, Schmied staged an exhibition at Gildengate House, titled State of Limbo: Extracts from Sovereign House, which featured videos shot on a mobile phone documenting Sovereign House, architectural models of aspects of the building and a publication with archival photographs of the building under construction between 1966 and 1968.  For MEANWHILE, a series of still-life photographs of Schmied’s models were presented, charged with greater significance now owing to Sovereign House’s planned demolition. Through the windows of the gallery, visitors can glimpse the looming façade of Sovereign House, still reflecting the skies above the city, still dazzling even in demise.

Norwich is now a place that is now being impacted by the model of economic growth based on property inflation.  As has become evident in London, the potential profit from real estate can become a force that overwhelms all other values.  LOWER.GREEN offers a vision of another possibility – of a new green, where ideas and play are propagated.  George McKay, currently Professor of Media Studies at the University of East Anglia, wrote in his book Radical Gardening: Politics, Idealism and Rebellion in the Garden (2011) that there are three meanings of ‘plot’: land (how the garden space itself is claimed, shaped, planted), history (a history of radical gardening) and politics (gardening as terrain for ideological struggle). LOWER.GREEN draws upon and deploys all three resonances of the term.  It is a project rooted in finite temporality, like all things that grow, that are impermanent.  Yet LOWER.GREEN demonstrates what can happen in spaces earmarked for gentrification, if those empty lots are claimed and invested in by the local community, for however long they can be, until the meanwhile runs out.  As Saskia Sassen points out, ‘Making by the powerless has a far slower temporality than that of ‘making’ by the powerful, who can grab and destroy quickly.  Yet when the demands of ‘outsiders’ for expanded inclusions succeed, they strengthen the overall institution of citizenship.  They may not have gained much power in this process, but their powerlessness became complex – they made a history, a politics.’  The message of MEANWHILE, if there could be said to be one, is that life and art must still happen, even while developers are busy making other plans. 

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