My name is Simeon Featherstone and I grew up in the east end of London. I use the medium of ceramics to tell different stories about people and their surrounding environment. I met the Studio 3 Arts team a couple of years ago and we hatched a plan to create a project that would document and archive the changes happening in Barking before it’s too late. I now live in south-east London and commute into Gascoigne every week or so to run activities for the Open Estate. This makes me aware that I’m part of the many changes happening and I tread this fine line very considerately. I make the most of the people around me who are passionate about the area and who will continue to support Gascoigne long after the project has finished.
There are lots of ways that artists choose to work in the public realm. There are some who seek provocation through their actions. Directly intervening in the systems that hold our society together. They introduce ideas and themes by confronting audiences with objects of potency[i]. Others choose to respond to their environments in more organic ways, gently adapting to their surroundings through programmes of cultural exchange between artist and users of the space[ii]. However we choose to confront our subject matter, artists are always reinterpreting what we see and hear. We sometimes obscure and distort the answers to questions we alone have asked. We look to create a new truth, a set of meanings and values that help us to understand our relationship with the world and discover what the other side may look like.
Working on the Open Estate is about revealing the multiple channels of reality and finding genuine forms of social authenticity. There are the media stories and local statistics that chart the estate’s history, but there are also hidden layers of meaning that are being buried alongside the rubble of this regenerated pocket of high-density living in East London. The quiz nights in the community centre filled with cigarette smoke, the scrawl of friendship written into the bedroom walls. This project is about framing these layers of meaning through participation. It is a form of community dialogue that encourages collective authorship. But like us artists, communities can also play hard and fast with authenticity and the accuracy of memories. But by encouraging a multitude of opinions, does this diminish the role of the artist in the public realm? Perhaps a little. But to be part of a community is to have a democratic voice. It is about freedom of speech, freedom to choose and freedom from a system that doesn’t always support your way of life.
For me, it is not simply localism, for there is no urgent single issue that is driving this project towards definitive conclusions. It isn’t about political action either[iii]. My role is not to demand better local services, or fair and affordable homes for the residing tenants. There are many advocates for change who can articulate this better than me. My role is to listen. It is to develop a collective consciousness through the values that the estate hold dear. It is to document the realities of the lives of people who have lived here for generations, or been rehoused, or who have come to seek a better future from around the globe. This is a heterogeneous neighbourhood constantly mutating via the push and pull of local governance and global culture. At times the area feels disparate and made of individual components. Age, ethnicity, religion and economics all compete to dominate the physical and psychological space. But like so much of London and inner city districts, there are pockets of spaces that keep everyone in touch. The primary school, the basketball courts, the children’s centre, the chip shop, hanging out in the car parks. The Hope pub on Boundary Road has been converted into a mosque, a place of worship, a signal that communities evolve. There is a dualism at play here. Physical changes are happening; managed change. Big decisions are steadily mapping out future forms of coexistence. Alongside this are the naturally occurring changes that come with the migration of people and culture in and out of the borough.
It is important that Open Estate offers a space to formulate these changes. It is an opportunity to occupy the Gascoigne physicality before the last of the shops are closed. The Gascoigne Living Museum is not an artwork in itself, but it is a symbol of the project ideals and the context of change. We have created a public visibility of openness to counterbalance the wrapping of the tower blocks before demolition. The Living Museum is a place for encounters, a place of chance, familiarity and discussion. It is not static, but a sequence of episodes where elderly ladies can drink tea in the warmth, families can make art and kids can seek refuge if need be. As an artist, I see the Living Museum as a vital learning mechanism about the people of Gascoigne. It is here that stories are reinterpreted, repurposed, even reimagined, to shine a light into the changes taking place on the estate.
[i] ‘It is what it is’ In 2009 the artist Jeremy Deller toured the US with the wreckage of a car destroyed in Iraq. His team included a citizen of Iraq and a former U Sergeant, both of whom were directly affected by the war. The touring artwork encouraged a direct engagement with audiences around America and produced many difficult conversations about the war in Iraq.
[ii] Assemble are an art and architecture collective based in Stratford, East London. They produce spaces that encourage new dynamic interplays between the public and their surroundings. Their work with the residents of Toxteth has seen them create workshops that support the exchanges of knowledge, craft and training to develop and sustain the area’s future.
[iii] Participation and community engagement is by its very nature, a political process. In reality, such ideals of mutualism and consensus do not necessarily exist in urban and architectural developments, let alone in art projects. Better instead to accept that no participatory process is going to completely dissolve the power structures and inequalities of those involved.
Architecture & Participation, Peter Blundell Jones, Doina Petrescu & Jeremy Till, Routledge 2005