Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Publicizing London's East End- Art as Vehicle for Education, and Gentrification, and the Paradoxes of Visibility

There is an organization called“Alternative London,” that offers guided tours of London's East End  that are themed along the lines of history, public art, and so forth, attempting to offer just what their title implies, an “alternative” view of London. I took one of their tours, which focused on street art, and, following my ethnographic training, wrote a detailed experiental account of the tour, largely trying to convey both its political bent, and pedagogical possibilities.

I approached the tour as a follow up to my reflections in the previous post about creative discourse in London and precarity, a visit that felt fairly providential, a day after writing about how the language of flexibility, creativity, and uniqueness has been appropriated in spaces like East End London to justify economic practices that exploit artist (and other flexible or creative labor) using it to sell city spaces without providing institutionalized structures of support or renumeration that would enable artist (or intellectual) production to be anything but a labor of love.

Bishopsgate, London. "Creative flexible workspace," ad for Condos. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce
The tour illustrated what I already saw to be two spatial tendencies that are brought into dramatic contrast in a space like East London. The dynamics of the corporate, smooth, official, and predictable surfaces (center city) and that of the rough, the less predictable, the peripheral, the textured (that of the East End, but also other spaces). Such a contrast is manifest when one gets off at the Liverpool Street stop and looks to the right and sees a giant glass phallus, and to the left and sees crumbling walls, red brick town houses, industrial warehouses, and lots and lots of construction, all adorned with street art.

Borondo piece and others. Photo credit: Caitlin Bruce

In contrast to the new development. Photo credit: Caitlin Bruce
What it also did was cultivate practices of attention, one based on a kind of willingness to absorb the scene rather than mapping it: looking up, rather than looking down. Moreover, as some of the tour guides are artists, the informal social connections they have to the East End become visible in interactions with what seem to be random locals. In between historical explanations, the tour guide, Ben Slow, called for tour members to “Look up!”  creating a shift in awareness among our group, people not only peeking around corners, but above signs, around drainpipes, and on the pavement.

Moreover, the process of taking the tour was also an experience of becoming sensitized to the contradictions and complicated histories contained in the space of the neighborhood itself. For instance, the tour group assembled at noon at Spitfield Market, a sanitized but “friendly” space trying to offer what theorist Renata Salecl has described as a sense of “home” in warm and welcoming interiors, soft lighting, whimsical coloring, even though such spaces are explicitly not hospitable to those without economic means. At Spitalfield a quasi-open air market forms the epicenter of a radial array of chain stores. Yet, it does not have much connection to the old East End, and stands in stark contrast to the oldest church in the area, a mosque that was a series of Judeo-Christian churches, built in 1743.

Spitalfields Mall. London. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce

Mosque, building from 1743. Brick Lane, London. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce
We also were made aware of connections between artists and the working class (increasingly scarce) population of the East End, evident in an homage to a neighborhood character named "Charlie." A grey-haired woman relaxing in a lawn chair by the unit, who Ben shouted hello to, and asked why she wasn’t wearing a bikini on such a sunny day, turned out to be Charlie’s daughter.
"Charlie Burns," by Ben Slow. Photo credit: Caitlin Bruce
Next to the Charlie piece was an homage to Caravaggio’s “David and Goliath,” by Cosmo Sarson, titled “With Apologies to Caravaggio,” with David taking a selfie whilst holding Goliath’s head. 
"With apologies..." Cosmo Sarsen. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce

Art may be a vehicle for gentrification insofar as it makes neighborhoods more alluring, but by the same measure, it can be a vehicle for subtly shifting modes of attention and sensitizing viewers to the human effects of urban development, as humble as noticing a small, vulnerable, bronze figure atop a lamp post, pointing to stories of artistic investment, love, and a relationship with a space, to more polemical critiques of selfie and instagram culture. The tour itself was a pedagogical scene for attuning publics to the unequal forms of development, a way of reframing discussions of value from economic value, to aesthetic and social value. So the "alternative," part of the tours is also an alternative culture to pure neoliberal development, one can hope.


I was contacted by the program director to adjust the post to not reveal all of the information gathered, since larger tourism organizations had been attempting to poach their tours, and, more interestingly, because the images can be found by google street art.

My immediate reaction was a sense of confusion and some sadness (mixed with a little frustration about different forms of writing, that what may seem like a summary to some, is in fact a critical piece that tries to address thematics that one has already been engaging). After thinking about it more, I think this exchange raises important questions about using art as a vehicle for education (and counterpoint to the gentrification it also initiates) but also the limits placed on using a vocabulary of the "unexpected" or the wholly new to account for a phenomenon that is increasingly visible, and legible, across the globe, due in part to a mix of hip hop's generality, the celebrity status of artists like Shepherd Fairey and Bansky, as well as mapping devices like Google Street Art (which is just one of many apps for mapping public art).

So it raises a series of questions, which are not meant to be polemical jabs at this particular tour, which I greatly enjoyed and thought was excellent, but rather broader questions about how to consider the intersections between street art, education, gentrification, and visibility:

Is the art not already in the public eye?

Doesn't the tour itself seek to educate participants about the different life worlds of the East End, and subsequently, aspire to a level of public awareness and generality so that the aesthetic and social value expressed by street art can be understood as mattering in a more substantial way (critical in debates about gentrification)?

If the tours map the constantly evolving terrain of street art in London, isn't it impossible to exhaust the available information?

What does it mean for a group of artists to claim the cultural historical knowledge of a locale as individualized (or at least, corporate or organizational) intellectual property?

Can't we think of tours as more than just bits of information, but rather, experiences of tactile proximity that shift registers of attention, in ways that may be emancipatory? I'm thinking here of Phaedra Pezzullo's rich work on toxic tourism and links between tourism, pedagogy, and activism. The suggestion would be that organizations such as Alternative London not only use the rich cultural resources of the East End's street art to raise awareness about its existence and (sadly) point to its demise, but also to organize, for its preservation, to use the practice of touring as a solidarity building network. This, I think, also more robustly addresses the artist/gentrification conundrum that inevitably crops up in discussions of rising property values by artists.

Finally, given the high profile of the neighborhood as a mecca for street art in London, and the fact that researchers and fans like myself are going there as a destination to document street art, isn't google mapping inevitable? Or are there ways that artists, activists, community residents, and scholars can frustrate systems of data collection and legibility by insisting on the unwritten SOCIAL connections that are articulated around public art as process, not simple, visible product?

Jonesie piece on Bethnal Green. Photo Credit: Caitlin Bruce

Vhils. Photo credit: caitlin bruce

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