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reposted from the critical theory and information studies PhD seminar blog

For the past several months, a network of bay area activists and artists have been staging protests surrounding a fleet of luxury coach buses. These private buses regularly use public bus stops to pick up hi-tech employees from San Francisco and shuttle them to Silicon Valley. The buses are used by a range of tech companies, but the protests have become known as the “Google Bus” protests.

 

google bus protests, 2014, link to source

google bus protests, 2014, link to source

 

Following the initial protests, local officials were relatively quick to come to an agreement that involved the shuttle companies paying the city a one dollar fee for every time a bus uses a public bus stop. The particular details of this private-bus-on-public-bus-stop situation are somewhat banal, to the extent that most highways and roads in the US, could be described as public infrastructure that supports the use of private automobiles. But such a reading, fails to get to the heart of the matter, nor does it allow one to fully appreciate why the “Google Bus” is a fascinating object to put at the center this discussion.

As a site of protest and class antagonism, the “Google Bus” functions as both a literal expression of privatized infrastructure, and a symbolic expression of economic inequality. Through this lens, the buses should be read as one small part of a complex set of entangled systems, that define the current conditions and flow of urban life. While an account of the these systems would include food, education, healthcare, waste management, water and power, communications, and transportation, it is housing, or housing policy, that is arguably at the center of this discussion. While there are a range of rent control and preservation policies that are unique to San Francisco, the unbridled “success” of the one percent, the suppression of real wages for working and middle class households, and a failure of civic imagination, are national trends, and have directly translated into rising rent and greater precariousness for working people. The average rental costs, for most major US cities, has exceeded the recommended 30% mark of  household income. In Los Angeles, where I’m writing from, the median rent has increased by 25% in the last 12 years, and more than half of the population pays rent that exceed 30% of their income. Across California, roughly 20% of households spend more than 50% of their income on rent.

The architect-artist Teddy Cruz argues that we have entered into an era of “urban crisis,” where most major cities around the world are characterized by dramatic social-economic inequality. In a collaborative lecture with political scientist Fonna Forman, the two argue that historic notions of happiness have directly translated into the design of cities. From Aristotle’s conception that happiness coming from our capacity to collaborate with our peers, to modernist notions of happiness coming from personal pleasure; the urban landscape has shifted from cities that centered around public commons, to enclaves of private space. For Forman and Cruz, this spatial architectural shift, is accompanied by the decline of “civic imagination,” and our sense of social responsibility.

 

Teddy Cruz, Urban Crisis 2013

Teddy Cruz, Urban Crisis 2013

 

In San Francisco, like many other cities, the social contracts of solidarity have long been broken. Whether it be personal stories of senior citizens and longtime residents being evicted, or the gradual erosion of opportunity for working people, the Google bus protests mark the continuation of working class protest and struggle. While one could situate, some of the more expressive moments of the Google bus protests within a genealogy of activist art, or regional traditions of San Francisco pranksters and interventionists, the critical themes motivating the work has a strong connection to the history of rent strikes. While the labour movement has been largely organized to combat worker exploitation – abolition of child labour, promotion healthier work conditions, fair wages, job security et cetera; residential rent is also one of the major ways wealth is extracted from the working class.

The history and logic of urban life can largely be understood as an expression of class hierarchy and antagonism. The very systems that support and manage urban life, often reinforce the socio-economic divisions of privilege and oppression. Reflecting this structural dynamic, there is a history of socialist and union organized residential rent strikes. In the UK and other social democracies, rent strikes are identified as part of the historic prelude to the formation of publicly owned social housing. In the US, rent strikes played a direct role in the short-term lowering of rents and the promotion of regional rent protection laws.

Rent Strike, New York Times, 1919.

Rent Strike, New York Times, 1919.

 

In the case of the recent bus protests, locating the protests along the transportation system, foregrounds an intuitive understanding that urban life is defined by an assemblage of related systems. When taken to its rational conclusion, one will inevitably arrive at a socio-ecological orientation. That is to say, the accounting of corporate profits, doesn’t acknowledge the true social and environmental costs enabling business as usual to happen. A holistic account of urban life is a prerequisite of a more equitable “civic imagination.”

In California, many have been quick to present a supply-and-demand analysis of the “rental crisis,” but a free-market approach is not going to resolve the layered problems we face. For one, there is little incentive for for-profit real-estate developers and landlords to undo the very market conditions that are creating substantial profits. Nationally, the US federal government should make considerable investments in affordable housing, to be released as regional grants. Regionally, the combination of a affordable housing trusts, that would keep large collections of housing stock outside of the market, along with universal rent control, and the creation of rent-to-own policies, or the expansion of subsidized mortgages for the remaining private housing stock, are a few possibilities for addressing the issue of affordable housing.

I want to conclude this text, by directing our attention to the “Freedom Budget,” a comprehensive proposal written by civil rights and labour activists in 1965. The “Freedom Budget” summarized its goals with the following list:

1) the abolition of poverty
2) guaranteed full employment
3) full production and high economic growth
4) adequate minimum wages
5) farm income parity
6) guaranteed incomes for all unable to work
7) a decent home for every American family
8) modern health services for all
9) full educational opportunity for all
10) updated social security and welfare programs
11) and equitable tax and money policies

 

References

Dewan, Shaila. “In Many Cities, Rent Is Rising Out of Reach of Middle Class.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 14 Apr. 2014. Web. 18 Apr. 2014.

“Freedom Budget.” – Social Justice Wiki. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Apr. 2014. http://socialjustice.ccnmtl.columbia.edu/index.php/Freedom_Budget#The_Budget.27s_Proposals

Harvey, David. Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution. New York: Verso, 2012. Print.

“High Rent, Few Options: Rising Rents and Short Supply Have Angelenos Weighing Their Choices | 89.3 KPCC.” High Rent, Few Options: Rising Rents and Short Supply Have Angelenos Weighing Their Choices | 89.3 KPCC. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Apr. 2014.

KPCC in Los Angeles, produced an interactive map illustrating the rental costs and income ratio for the greater LA region. http://projects.scpr.org/static/longreads/high-rent-few-options/

“How Burrowing Owls Lead To Vomiting Anarchists (Or SF’s Housing Crisis Explained) | TechCrunch.” TechCrunch. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Apr. 2014. An overview of the regional dynamics and history of San Francisco’s housing crisis. http://techcrunch.com/2014/04/14/sf-housing/

Illich, Ivan. Deschooling Society. New York: Harper & Row, 1971. Print.

Nichols, John. The S Word: A Short History of an American Tradition… Socialism. Brooklyn, NY: Verso, 2011. Print.

“The Urbanization of Happiness and the Decline of Civic Imagination with Fonna Forman and Teddy Cruz.” YouTube. YouTube, 14 Apr. 2014. Web. 18 Apr. 2014. Lecture about the history of happiness and urbanization https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KK33-qDLCow

“Why the Private Market Can Never Solve SF’s Housing Crisis – 48 Hills.” 48 Hills. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Apr. 2014.

SF housing crisis and affordable housing alternatives. http://48hillsonline.org/2014/04/14/private-market-can-never-solve-sfs-housing-crisis/

 

Shoreditch_Park_Dustin_O'Hara_001

Shoreditch Park Project, Dustin O’Hara.

re-posted from the Shoreditch Park Project Website.

Standing in Shoreditch Park, it’s hard to comprehend the scale of destruction that set things in motion. Like many parks in east London, it’s a former WWII bomb site. A neighborhood of Victorian era houses flattened by the Blitz. Now, some seventy years later, it’s a well used and well equipped neighborhood park. Bordered, almost exclusively, by council owned social housing estates, the area has an established working class history. As part of this history, for nearly thirty years prior to becoming a park, the site was home to a neighbourhood of prefabricated homes.

Organized and funded by the British central government, the Temporary Housing Act of 1944, provided hundreds-of-thousands of people with their own prefabricated home. For many residents, their ‘prefab’ gave them their first day-to-day experience of living with indoor plumbing, modern appliances, and what middle class sensibilities would consider sufficient living space.

The Shoreditch Park Project emerged out of the basic impulse to orient oneself, to understand the social and material landscape of the neighbourhood, and the stories of how it has changed. In its current form, the park, offered a prime case study for exploring how social memory and local mythologies are reflected in the landscape. As a point of research, the Shoreditch Park Project has been thematically focused on this neighbourhood of prefab homes.

As factory built homes – the postwar prefabs, can be understood as an architectural-industrial expression of hope. The prefab program was a critical nexus point, of social policy, industrial urbanism, and design thinking that reshaped the domestic reality and daily lives of countless people. At the same time, the prefab housing program was part of a much wider campaign to rebuild the nation. From the National Health Service, to Universal Child Benefit, to state funded education, numerous programs, that act as instruments for social justice, emerged in the postwar years.

dustinohara_ahoreditch_park_project_interview

Shoreditch Park Project, conducting an interview in the park. Listening to memories of living in the prefabricated homes in Shoreditch Park.

How does one situate this, established historic narrative of the Temporary Housing Act, in relation to the less fixed mythologies of life in this specific neighborhood? When interviewing people about how the neighborhood has changed, you quickly find contradictions and anecdotal details that reveal competing interests and embedded power relations that have historically shaped the neighborhood and continue to inform the stories we tell ourselves about the place. Often the voice itself, acts as powerful cultural register, determining our relational understanding of class, race, gender, and region. With regard to the prefabs, and housing in general, one will quickly comes to realize that housing is always an issue, and that the critical problems the prefab program addressed are still present, in one way or another.

Working with a group of youth researchers, we’ve held six months of weekly workshops, anchored in a curriculum that mixes new media literacy with heritage and social documentation research. We’ve reviewed the local council archives, hosted tea party gatherings, collected man-on-the-street style interviews, and gone on field trips to postwar prefabs that are still in use. In total we’ve conducted over 60 oral history interviews. The project has culminated in the production of an audio visual collection, website, park installation, and short sound piece. In this way, the project is a research/educationally driven interpretive project, that actively relocates the notion of cultural heritage from a noun to a verb, from a fixed object to an inherently collaborative and performative act.

– Dustin O’Hara, 20th June 2013

Visit the Shoreditch Park Project Website for more.

The following was originally written at the introduction to the meyouhoxtontoo.net publication.

Welcome! This online publication emerged out of the desire to document the project Me You Hoxton Too. Me You Hoxton Too was a collaborative effort between Access All Areas, PEER Participate, and artist Dustin O’Hara. It took place in the east London neighbourhood of Hoxton in 2012. Like most socially engaged work, its function and meaning is inseparable from the wider social, material, and historical conditions that have enabled the work to happen. As a way of discussing the many issues that have, and are, shaping the Hoxton neighborhood, while simultaneously reflecting the discursive nature of Me You Hoxton Too, this publication contains a number of interviews and texts from the various players involved. The hope is that this collection of information will provide an enriched understanding of both Hoxton the place as well as the various projects being presented.

– Dustin O’Hara

This publication has been made possible through support from PEER Participate,
with funding from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation. Edited and compiled by Dustin O’Hara.
View the Table of Contents to find the interviews and texts.

Originally posted at meyouhoxtontoo.net

PEER consistently surprises by creating opportunities for artists to produce exceptional work in unexpected circumstances.
– Sir Nicholas Serota, Director, Tate

The Pier Trust was founded by Alex Sainsbury in 1997 and has been known as PEER since 1999. The gallery has been located on Hoxton Street since 2002. PEER is an independent organisation that commissions imaginative and ambitious arts projects by local, national and international artists in the heart of east London.

Martin Creed, Work No 203, Everything is Going to be Alright (detail) 1999. Commissioned by PEER

Dustin: Well can you talk a little bit about what informs the programming at PEER?

Gemma: At PEER we have a tendency of working with one artist on solo projects: you develop very close relationships with those artists. We’re genuinely dedicated to the practices that artists have and to give those artists an opportunity to work on projects that they haven’t had a chance to do before, or to take a risk. And I think it’s well known that when you’re invited by PEER you know its not just another show, its an opportunity to have a really fascinating dialogue and close engagement with Ingrid and myself. I think we absolutely strive to do the best in making the projects that exist on Hoxton Street fantastic, thought provoking and innovative. And they’re available there on the high street among all the other things that you see. Maybe it’s interesting to hear a little bit from Ingrid about the idea of the gallery in the expanded field in relation to that, and where PEER wants to position itself and go forward.

Ingrid: It’s just a sort of catch phrase. But I’ve just been thinking about the idea of the gallery in the expanded field, which is riffing on Rosalind Krauss’s notion of sculpture in the expanded field. I’m not trying to make any kind of grand theoretical claims. It’s not meant to be tricksy or clever. It’s just meant to be quite straightforward: which is how art can be part of daily life. Really it’s as simple as that, and how a lot of the smaller-scale galleries, that we’re often spoken of in the same breath, are quite hidden, they’re difficult places to find. And when you get there you’re often confronted by a door with a tiny little buzzer on it. And so this idea of art which is set back physically and psychologically from the street, it’s in this other space, and the idea of the gallery in the expanded field is that it is part of that space, it’s all one space in a way. How does the inside of the gallery impact the outside of the gallery? We are on a local high street with a very complex and interesting local community. Its got its own personality, if you like—multiple personalities. And so I think it is this idea of normalising something which is meant to be difficult and confrontational and I’m not saying that the work has to be dumbed down at all. I mean life is difficult so why can’t art be difficult.

Me You Hoxton Too Dustin O’Hara, Access All Areas, and PEER Participate,  2012

Dustin: Can you talk a little bit about previous projects and their relationship to the neighbourhood, or how PEER’s relationship to the neighbourhood has developed?

Ingrid: A number of the projects we’ve done have been off-site projects and that’s been a very important element of our program. The first one was by Martin Creed. This was followed by a joint application between the Shoreditch Trust and PEER to the Deutsche Bank’s ‘Art and Regeneration Award.’ And so the result of that was John Frankland’s Boulder Project. There are two boulders. There’s one in a park just up the road – Shoreditch Park– and another at Mabley Green. The one at Shoreditch Park weighs about 85 tonnes; it’s solid granite and it came out of a quarry in Cornwall. They are the result of a blast, they haven’t been manipulated by the artist’s hand.

John Frankland, Boulder, 2008. Commissioned by PEER and Shoreditch Trust

John Frankland, Boulder being picked up after blast, 2008

The Park Users Group wanted a fountain or something, but fountains get easily vandalised and trashed and they fall into disrepair, they’re very hard to keep up. So we had some meetings with that group and I had several conversations with John, and we proposed the Boulder Project. It is a very powerful feature of the park. Whether the granite boulder is interpreted by park users as a piece of sculpture or as a feature, is neither here nor there because ‘sculpture’ is just a word.  It’s something that people sort of gravitate towards. It looks totally ambiguous as to how it got there. It could have been a meteor that fell out of the sky, which is very unlikely.

John Frankland is a sculptor who uses a lot of ideas about material and scale in his work. He’s also a very avid rock climber. There’s a whole area of rock climbing called ‘bouldering’ and he’s one of many people who enjoy that. So we worked with local climbing clubs and with the schools and there’s a climbing club at the sports centre just at the edge of the park. So there’s a lot of hugely rich material that could be mined from this lump of granite that sits in the park. One of the local schools, the primary school on the edge of the park, did a fantastic project around the boulder with no consultation from PEER whatsoever. And so that’s only one of the off-site projects that we did.

Dustin: As someone who lives just down the street from the boulder, I see people climbing it all the time…

Ingrid: Yeah, it’s good; it’s got its own life now. 

Dustin: Yeah, the boulder is an interesting counterpoint to the common formal quality of public sculpture, which has little regard to the community surrounding it, and a week later becomes a monument to bird poop.

Ingrid: Yeah, they can be either ignored or loathed …invisible or just hated.

Gemma: There’s no announcement or any kind of card or plaque.

Dustin: The fact that it’s not identified as an artwork, as a sculpture, is one of its strengths.

Gemma: Yeah, it just allows it to exist and be taken as it is.

Bob and Roberta Smith, Shop Local, Dad’s hair salon sign, 2006. Commissioned by PEER

Dustin:  Absolutely. So can you talk a little bit more about the local shopkeepers sign project?

Ingrid: That’s by Bob & Roberta Smith. The signs reference a tradition of 19th, early 20th century sign painting. There are lots of ghost signs, as they’re known, around London and every city in the world. There’s a fantastic one on Kingsland Road near the Geffrye Museum about the Piano Manufacturers. So it was really about celebrating the sole traders and it was kind of a ‘two-fingers up’ to the large influx of big corporate shops that completely wipe out the little guys. The idea was kind of political with a very small ‘p.’ And again there’s this tremendous ambiguity about the work, there were five signs, for local shops that don’t exist anymore; ‘Ron’s Eel and Shellfish’ sign on the canal. ‘Ron’s Eel and Shellfish’ doesn’t exist anymore because Ron retired two summers ago. The sign is a souvenir, a record of the history of Hoxton Street. There’s ‘Dad’s Hairdressers’ on the side of Hoxton Works. And again, Mr Ellison, who is Dad, an Afro-Caribbean hairdresser, has retired so that shop doesn’t exist any longer. But I think that sign is safe because of its location on Hoxton Works. And then there’s ‘Hoxton Electro-vision’, which is on the side of the building here, next to the Post Office. None of the signs say “This is an artwork by Bob & Roberta Smith.” Bob & Roberta Smith have not signed them. And none of the signs say PEER. So they are completely on their own.

Dustin: So can you talk a bit about PEER Participate? How that fits into PEER, and it’s relationship to everything that we’ve been talking about in terms of the programming?

Gemma: A lot of smaller galleries now have a strand of education and outreach work. And PEER was doing that in a more fluid way. But in 2010 we were awarded support from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation to run a two-year pilot program, of education and out reach activities in the local community. The first two partners on board were St. Monica’s RC Primary School which is on Hoxton Square and Bridge Academy, which is a secondary school just on Laburnum Street. For the last two years artist Maria Amidu has been working with children from St. Monica’s, and we just recently held a showcase of work by 37 children from the After School Club called Dolphin Loves Disco.  And what’s really interesting is those children have visited PEER quite a few times. They’re very familiar with PEER and they walk past and are very confident about coming into the gallery, they know Ingrid and me. Often their parents are a bit more reluctant, but the kids pull them in.

Maria Amidu and St. Monica’s RC Primary School, Dolphin Loves Disco, 2012 Project commissioned by PEER Participate

Maria Amidu and St. Monica’s RC Primary School, Dolphin Loves Disco, 2012 Project commissioned by PEER Participate

And then this year with Bridge, we’ve been working with an artist called Emma Hart who’s actually worked with the teachers and not the students. The art department staff were interested in doing a project together to understand a little bit more about themselves and what they wanted to do, and what their mission should be as an art department. Emma’s been working on the idea of a manifesto, a series of manifesto statements that stresses the importance of art education, which is at threat because of the e-baccalaureate system. The manifestos will become is a series of six stickers that make bold statements about the importance of art education, which we’ll disseminate to local secondary schools around the area. There’s also been various other smaller groups that we have worked with, including an Over 50s Beginners Art Group just up the road, and students with learning disabilities based at Hackney Community College just across the road.

Emma Hart and art teachers from Bridge Academy, 2012. Project commissioned by PEER Participate

Dustin: So where do you see things going?

Gemma: All of the people we’ve worked with are keen to continue working in some way. We have to maintain those relationships, build on them and see what’s possible along the way.

Ingrid: Obviously the idea of the pilot is you test things out. And we’ve tested a bunch of stuff out. We’ve learnt a lot. It has to be led by what works and what’s successful and what people will get the most from.

Dustin: How do you determine what is successful? How are you assessing that?

Ingrid: When people say ‘How can we think of ways to carry on doing it?’ That’s good evidence of something being successful. St. Monica’s, who have had two years of an access to PEER, those kids may be people who wouldn’t normally have access to contemporary art. But because they feel quite confident about coming in here, or if they happen to see us on the street and say hello, I’d like to think that those kids will continue to have a sense of ease with PEER and with art. And as they grow older art might become a significant part of their creative learning, or enrich their life. I’m not saying that art should make you happy; I’m saying that art can make you think, just the way that listening to a piece of music, or reading a story can. There are sections of the local community which may not be otherwise inclined to go and see contemporary art. It was quite interesting with the kids taking bouldering classes during the Shoreditch Festival two-three summers ago when the boulders first went in. One Saturday afternoon, three of the boys who were signed up for the class didn’t show up, and so we got a bit annoyed about that because it’s not a right it’s a privilege to have your free bouldering classes on a Saturday afternoon, and to not turn up is a bit naughty. But then it transpired that these boys had taken themselves off to the Forest of Dean, or somewhere like that, because they’d heard that there were some boulders that could be climbed. That was amazing! Because they thought, “Well, we’ve done this one. Let’s go and find another one!” And that’s how you measure success, I think.

Access All Areas, is a theater company that works with people with severe learning disabilities. Formally under the name Rainbow Theater Company, the group has been working in Hoxton Hall since 1976. Access All Areas runs several ongoing parallel workshop groups that meet throughout the week. 

Train Me Up Workshop Group

Dustin: How did AAA get going? and what inspired you to work in the way that you do?

Nick: When I started we had no office, we were running it out of our bedrooms. We took over the group [Rainbow Theater Company] that was founded in 1976, for people with severe learning disabilities. We saw how amazing it was, but we wanted to develop it. So I came along as a workshop leader, and eventually took over as director of the charity and developed a business plan. We’ve secured some more regular funding and now we have our own office. So, I came along and took over, in a good way I hope. Then we employed Ciara, as a part time creative learning officer. So we’re growing slowly but surely.

Ciara: I was involved in theater from a very young age, but it was during university that I began to be disillusioned with theater for theater sake. I love theater, but there was something missing for me. And then one of the modules at university was titled ‘Applied Theater.’ It was about using drama, and the mechanisms of drama as a tool to bringing about learning and growth. And that just made perfect sense to me. So straight from university I went to work with community theater companies, working in hospitals, prisons, schools. So then I moved to London, and worked for an organization programming all of their performing arts projects, that was mixture of coordination and facilitation. And over those four years, I had done quite a lot of work with disabilities, and became very interested and fascinated by it. And then I saw that Rainbow was calling for volunteers. So I started to volunteer on Monday nights, after my normal work, and fell in love with it really. I think a more holistic approach to theater training can have wonderful effects, especially with people with learning disabilities. So then it lined up that Access All Areas was looking to take on another person, and now I work two to three days a week with the company.

Rainbow Theatre Company

Dustin: Can you talk about how your methodology as a theater company relates to social work?

Nick: So, we live in two worlds when we work in this field. We work through the arts, and we also work through day services, social services, and mainstream care. We’re creating art, but we are mindful of the groups we are working with, and the different contexts that people are living in. Some people live independently, but most people live in either care homes, or with their parents. Even at the age of 50 or 60, some of them are still living with their parents. With their parents aging, some of our members still haven’t learned any independent life skills at all. So we’re living and working in this double edged place, where we’re developing actors, for those and want to go on a pursue auditions, we’re here to help them move in that direction. And for other people it will be just about coming along each week, developing some social communication skills, but also giving some rest to their families and carers as well. So we’re doing many different things, and with new projects we can offer different options depending on their wanting to do.

Ciara: With this kind of work, you’re not just a theater maker, the pastoral role is equality as important. And keeping abreast with the public sector, state polices, working alongside local authorities, and other third sector organizations as well, to understand your place as an organization. I think especially with our project spinning yarn, with people with severe and multiple disabilities, we’ve had to work quite closely with Hackney council, to build a project that is built around the individual participants. That led me into a whole world of working along side social workers, duty care managers, care homes, care providers, and that’s something I never thought I would be getting into at all. In terms of You Me Hoxton Too, it was a research based project, that took us out into the community. We took our actors out away from the stage and into the neighborhood. Access All Areas does a wonderful job of creating a safe space for people with learning disabilities to explore and create amazing theater. But what was different with Me You Hoxton Too, we were giving them the tools to research out in their local communities, and staging conversations with local residents. It was something we had never done before, and I think it was really important for the integration of our members into the local community.

Dustin: Can you talk about the audience for Access All Areas, and how often Access All Areas puts on public shows?

Nick: We work with a lot of disability related organization, including a youth center, Hackney College, and a number of other groups. So, we have quite a sizable contingent of people coming to the shows. Of course parents, and carers, and as a company we manage a database of contacts of people interested in our shows. We rely a lot on volunteers for our performances. The shows run smoothly thanks to a lot of help from our volunteers. So we’re well supported in terms of volunteers and audiences. While we get strong reviews, often people will come up to us and give us feedback, “I’m not to sure about this, or that…” So our regular audience members are often quite honest, and if you can’t be honest with them who can you be?

A Very Unmerry Hardpenny Christmas

Dustin: Can you talk about the workshop methodology, your influences and inspiration, and how people might move between being an audience member to a performer and back again?

Nick: Well it really depends on the specific project. If it’s rainbow, that’s our Monday evening group, that meets every week for two and half hours. We use a mixture of drama, movement, and music, and we’ve started to use film now and as well. We’ll use those skills to explore different topics. For our show Walk a Mile in My Shoes, we explored the world war two as a topic. We explored the history of learning disability in a show called A Very Unmerry Hardpenny Christmas. And looking at how people with learning disabilities have only recently began coming out of institutionalization and major discrimination. So we have a mixture of techniques, no hard and fast solutions. We use physical theater, we never use texts, because a lot of our group can’t read. So all of our shows are devised by the group, and they’re all quite good at remembering and improvising things in the moment.

 Ciara: It’s a combined arts practice, the different disciplines don’t exist separately, they exist together as a way of exploring. And I think that works quite well with our members, because we work with people with an array of different learning needs. So employing an interdisciplinary approach we’re able to engage all of our members in different ways that suits them.

Nick: For those with profound and multiple learning disabilities, they have no form of verbal communication, and their range of expression is very limited compared to what we would perceive as a kind of performance in a traditional sense. We felt that creating a public performance wasn’t always the best for those participants. So we started Spinning Yarn for that purpose. So for the other groups, we now say want members that are conscious that they are performing. It’s therefore our job to find out how each person is then able to perform, and then we engage the performance around them. Each person is shown in the most positive light they can.

RE:bow rain Production

 Ciara: I guess there is something to be said about our methodology, in terms of where does the exploration end and the direction begin. It’s very much user led, devising process. Our members devise the material. But at what point do we have to step in and take on the role of director? Their’s no straight answer to that. It’s always quite an interesting question, we are working through.

Nick: I think that’s one of the main, ongoing arguments, we’re dealing with all the time in participant led performance. You have practitioners that are trained helping to facilitate an experience for a group of people, but bearing in mind we also have an audience. We have to create a space for material to develop, but as facilitators we need to be able to mold it in a way that is legible as a performance that has some kind of journey. Doing the Me You Hoxton Too project was a huge departure for us, leaving the confines of the theater and into the streets to engage with local residents. We are actively exploring different ways to develop our performers skills, and engage with the community we have been a part of since the mid 70s. There are people in our group that use to live in a hospital, and to go outside the hospital they had to get a specific pass, that you had to apply for like you were getting a visa and go to a foreign country. So I’m very conscious of how this area has a huge history of locking up people who don’t quite fit within societal norms. And although we try and do the opposite, we are generally confining people to the theater space, so going out into the streets was quite a nice departure for us, to perform on the streets that our members are from, and engage with a public that has never seen any of our shows.

Me You Hoxton Too

Dustin: You briefly mentioned it earlier, but can talk a bit more about how you help and represent those performers interested in pursuing their acting on a professionallevel?

Nick: Yeah, some of our performers really want to take their acting seriously, and they’ve been saying it since I met them. So we had an opportunity to go to the BBC and create show reels for a casting director. So we took a group that was interested in doing that. And since then we’ve had a quite a few different opportunities for our performers to audition, and have had great success on mainstream BBC television programs. And the performers are able to get a good payment for their acting skills. It’s been great, especially since there are no opportunities for anyone with a learning disability in normal drama schools to get professional training. So, not only are we trying to enable a marginalized group to develop their communication, social, and interpersonal skills, but we’re hoping to raise awareness and change public perceptions of learning disabilities. And while we’re doing that help some of our members to get paid work within the arts.

For more information about Access All Areas watch the video below, or visit their website www.access-all-areas-uk.org

originally posted at meyouhoxtontoo.net

Justin O’Shaughnessy is the culture and arts producer at the Shoreditch Trust. As written on their website the “Shoreditch Trust aims to tackle inequality and exclusion across deprived and disadvantaged neighbourhoods with a particular concentration on activity in Shoreditch. By focussing on the root causes of inequality we aim to enable individuals, families and communities improve their mental, physical and social wellbeing.”

Shoreditch Trust – Shoreditch Festival

Dustin: Can you tell us about the Shoreditch Trust and your position there?

Justin: I’ve been running the Shoreditch Festival for the Shoreditch Trust for the last five years or so. The Shoreditch Trust was started in 2000 as part of the New Deal for Communities programme, set up by New Labour. There were 39 of the them across the country in areas of multiple deprivation. The original brief for all of them, was to look at housing, employment, education, and health issues over a ten year period. Each organization had about 50 million pounds to spend, which sounds like a huge amount of money, but when you look at the constituency in which we were working, the housing stock alone required a window refurbishment that cost something like 125 million, so that gives you a scale to things. We’re quite a large organization, with a long list of agendas: housing, health, job training, etc. We’re still running a lot of those programs, but central government funding stopped in March 2010. There have been a number of successes from that period, but we believe there is still work to be done. We have a number of health workers out in the community, running antenatal session, working with issues of mental health, and we do a lot around health eating and growing. We run a number of community kitchens, and we are just now running a program called Estate to Plate across Hackney, looking at how to encourage people to grow their own produce and eat more healthily. We also have a small property portfolio, which helps us to bring in income; we use these as managed workspaces, which gives us contact with other organizations in the area.

I have the privilege of the delivering the cultural offer. The cultural offer has been very helpful, even though we’re not an arts organization, as it helps us start discussions with people that we otherwise might not talk to. So the festival has acted in many ways as an annual focal point, or glue, for the organization internally, giving us moment to say we’re here, we’re doing something. But it’s also allowed us work with a range of other partners. And since taking over the festival, one of my strategies has been to ask local organizations, how can the festival serve you? What can I do to ensure you can participate and use the festival to both raise awareness of your organization and to showcase your work. The festival used to happen in Shoreditch Park, as part of a wider public works and refurbishment programme; the park wasn’t always the safest place to go. Part of the strategy for holding the festival in the park, was in the belief that ‘eyes on street’ make for a safer place, more people using this park ensures it’s better looked after and better serves the communities that use it. By 2010 we had become a very large festival, a three-day event in the park, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and fireworks, and two more days of activity. By then, the park was refurbished and many more people were using it and other festivals were taking place there, so it many ways it was a case of saying our job is done there, where else can we look. And part of the strategy of moving the festival to the Regent’s Canal in 2010 was of similar thinking: the towpath didn’t always feel like the safest of places, there was a huge amount of development going on around the canal – you might say it was almost a privatization of space with all the building going on – so we wanted people to come to the towpath, to own the area, explore parts of their neighborhood they might not otherwise go to. It was a strategy to say this is your and it’s open to everyone.

And this year in 2012, we decided there was more work to be done in Hoxton Street and to support the market. So we split the festival into two days, one day on Hoxton Street with a number of organizations up and down the Hoxton Street market. And we did another small piece of work along the canal to support the One Hackney Festival.

I think Hoxton Street still has to be the heart of our focus, it’s the heart of the community we are suppose to serve, and it acts as a backbone to the area. An area that still has a great need, in regard to all of the kind of delivery paths we have. Particularly as Hackney changes very quickly all around us – there is an ongoing march of gentrification that can often lead to a displacement effect. The gentrification takes over pockets and actually excludes people: it’s not the most inclusive process often. So offering high quality, free, cultural activities allows us to ensure a cultural entitlement for all despite economic barriers, compared to the festivals that are 200 pounds a ticket.

Shoreditch Trust – community garden program

Dustin: Can you talk about what we were talking earlier before the interview, about shifting from a once a year event, to ongoing programming. Or moving from producing a moment of celebration to cultivating sustained conversations and partnerships?

Justin: While doing a Masters in Sociology at Goldsmiths I wrote about the difficulty of using arts and cultural practice as part of regeneration agendas. My line was that they’re a kind of opiate that keeps people happy, but doesn’t really empower them in any real way. There’s quite a left line there, following theorists like Nancy Fraser. But ironically having written that thesis – suggesting that cultural practices were weak when used within the regeneration process – I found myself working at a cultural organization called Rich Mix (in Bethnal Green), a cultural regeneration project, and then I came to Shoreditch Trust working as part of regeneration agendas. So my view has shifted slightly, though I think there are constant issues and constant challenges. We need to question what we do, year on year, month on month, to ask why are we doing this? Is it relevant to our constituents? Is this a useful thing to do? I’m not very good at the ‘art for art’s sake’ approach, I want it to have an agency within its context and place.

I think it’s important to say that Shoreditch Trust isn’t an arts organization. So the cultural offer we have is just one of the tools in the toolkit we have. We’re a charity that is there to serve a very specific community in a small area. But often the models we have piloted here, are useful elsewhere. In terms of community kitchens and healthy eating programmes, for instance, we are running a number across the borough. While in 2011 and previously, we’ve been the largest free festival in Hackney, I think that parachuting in a festival for a weekend or a week, in the summer, once a year, isn’t the most useful way engendering a conversation around the arts, or indeed entitlement to artistic practices and potential change and the opening up of opportunities. So in 2011 we started running a Creative Mentoring project, where we had ten young people from Hackney and we embedded them with six creative organizations and artists in the area, over a six-month period. It was a very successful project for both the young people and the organizations involved, resulting in an exhibition in a found space just off the back of Hoxton Street. And I think we also came to realize that being able to sustain that project over six months had huge value. Having a sustained in depth conversation with the participants about the process and product, and about the experience over six months, was in many ways far more fulfilling and useful then brushing up against 30,000 people in the park for a weekend.

Shoreditch Trust – Hoxton Street Party Poster

I’ve been on the festival now for five years and we have built partnerships with over 65 local organizations, and I think everybody realizes that sustaining that conversation with our constituents throughout the year is the most important way to go.  So we’re looking at how we can stretch the resources we have, and how we can use them more efficiently, and how we can put very humble small initiatives into place, while working in partnership with other cultural organizations and artists in the area. How do we weave the cultural conversation, throughout the year, and through different projects we’re doing? For instance, I was talking with a local gallery about a sexual health project, that we could link up with our antenatal care unit. There are common links between what this gallery is trying to do, and what our care unit is doing, how can we overlap them so there is a benefit to both projects?

We know visual arts tend to deify the artist – the individual – so that commercial galleries can sell the work. And in some ways, that sense of solo authorship that also runs within current celebrity culture suggests that individuals are important, rather then communities. The festival format can, in some respects, fall into the same trap: you put on a headline act and people come to consume. So we’ve tried to undermine that, by working with the local schools to open slots for young bands to play on the same stage and bill without the hierarchy of the headliner. So it becomes a more communal space, rather then something that is just consumed and watched from a distance. The festival is only useful to me because it is about the constituents and the sum of its parts.

Shoreditch Trust – Hoxton Street Party

Likewise when we did the project in Hoxton Street, the issue there was saying, the market isn’t doing as well as it could, while other markets in the borough are burgeoning. But actually there is a huge amount of cultural activity and thought going on in the area, from the work that you’re doing with PEER gallery, to the Ministry of Stories, Hoxton Hall, to A Brooks gallery, with the Retz collective at the top of the street, with dance companies like Ebonessence, the local Tae Kwondo group, the creative mentoring program, all the pubs; there are manifold events, activities, interventions going on already. So by talking with those people, we used the festival as a way of bringing everyone together to show their wares and come into the street on one day, to make people realize how much there is there. So it wasn’t about any headliners, it was literally about getting people out onto the street so we could have conversations. Our cultural program has to be a route to having conversations with people, using it where we can to decrease isolation and increase access and opportunities.

You can learn more about the Shoreditch Trust and the various programs at: www.shoreditchtrust.org.uk

I originally wrote this short text for meyouhoxtontoo.net

“The power of ordinary urban landscapes to nurture citizens’ public memory, to encompass shared time in the form of shared territory — remains untapped for most working people’s neighborhoods…  The sense of civic identity that shared history can convey is missing.”  -Dolores Hayden, The Power of Place  

Shortly after returning home from a trip to the London Zoo, a large box of perfume mistakenly arrived at our door. The perfume belonged to our neighbors living above us in flat number 37. After returning the box, I asked our neighbors if I could interview them about their lives. A few days later we sat in their living room drinking tea. Going through their shoe boxes of personal photos, Carol told me how she had moved into the flat some 45 years earlier, when she was ten years old. Before moving, into the then newly build flat, her and her family lived in a ‘prefab’ home across the street. The neighborhood of prefabricated homes were located in an area that is now a neighborhood park. As I left their flat, Carol gave me a bottle of pink perfume as a gift. This exchange marked the beginning of my year in Hoxton.

Carol holding a photo of her and her two sisters standing outside their “prefab” home located in the area that is now known as Shoreditch Park.

Coming from California, one of the things I really appreciate about East London is being able to walk and cycle most places. As you walk from ‘the city’ east to Hoxton the visible layers of history are striking, ancient ruins, victorian era housing, nineteen-fifties post-war redevelopment, and glass monoliths of contemporary finance. In the 1600s Hoxton was known for its flower gardens. It was a small country village just outside the city walls of London. As the urban landscape filled in, Hoxton Street became home to some of the largest lunatic asylums in Europe. During the air raids of world war two the East London area was heavily bombed. Many of the bomb sites were filled in with prefab homes as part of a larger post-war campaign to rebuild the nation, followed by more permanent social housing estates. Hoxton is internationally known for its story of gentrification, but since the financial crisis the process of gentrification has slowed down. Hoxton Square is monied and largely identified as Hoxton by outsiders, but just up the street you find a completely different Hoxton, a neighborhood of council owned social housing estates, small turkish veggie shops, cafes, and pubs.

I saw a note posted on the wall outside our flat, for a tenant management organization board meeting. I went to the meeting, and the members of the board were so shocked to see anyone there besides themselves that they quickly offered me a position on the board. Later in the week, I approached the director of the tenant management organization, about creating an online community archive and publication showcasing personal objects and the stories connected to them. It turned out they had recently hired a web developer to build an estate website, but he left on holiday to Brazil and never returned. So I was hired to develop a website for the estate, and as an extension develop an online community archive and potential publication. As an extension of this activity I decided to organize a series of media literacy workshops for residents of the estate. I contacted PEER, a nearby gallery, to see if they would be involved. PEER invited me over for tea, having looked at documentation of my previous work, they offered to commission a project as part of their participation program. Having been in the area since 2002 they were interested in rethinking their relationship to the neighborhood, and thought the way I was working fit well with that interest.

I began walking up and down Hoxton Street, back alleys and side streets. I climbed onto roof tops, and snuck into empty buildings. I read about the history, and stopped pensioners on the street to chat with them about their memories. In the evenings I drank beer with a theater group called Retz that had taken over a storefront on Hoxton Street. Around this time the Barrel Cafe opened. The cafe quickly became my afternoon office. As the owner of the cafe took notice, we became friends, and he started supplying me free coffee. One day at the cafe, Sonia an older woman sat at a table across from me talking with a friend about a florist named Mark, and how he provided their church with flowers. I asked the two woman if I could interview them about their memories of the neighborhood. They said yes and suggested I come to church to meet an older member of their congregation. I ended up going to church with Sonia on and off for the next couple months. Not being particularly religious I introduced myself as a neighbor interested in listening to their stories. And explained that I was developing a project that was for and about the neighborhood, and that the project was being commissioned by PEER – the gallery down the street, next to the post office. I conducted several interviews and learned a great deal about politics and post-war history of Hoxton.

Roughly every two or three weeks I visited PEER to discuss the project’s development. Gemma and Norma were very supportive, and Gemma always made a fine cup of tea. If art is tantamount to religion, then these meetings were a kind of confession.
“Forgive me father for I have sinned, I have been seduced by the everyday. The earlier discussed notion of the city as archive has led me to organize a series of walks with local residents, creating a photo and story series.”

During this period I befriended Sue, the neighborhood mortician. The funeral shop on Hoxton Street was known for it’s slightly eccentric window displays that changed with the seasons, and reflected holidays and notable current events. Sue works alone, she is quite welcoming and open to conversation. On the wall of her office is a framed photo of a motorcycle with a coffin sized sidecar, and on her desk is a catalog of novelty coffins, tie dye, nasa space photos, etc. She is full of funny stories of funerals gone wrong, and has clearly spent a lot of time thinking about her ideal funeral. I met Sue at the funeral shop at the end of her working day and walked with her to the bus stop she uses to get home. She told me about how much she loved her work, and soon her bus came and took her away. As I stood there watching the bus drive off, Sonia from St. Annes church came walking around the corner with her grandson Jesse. Sonia had taken a strong interest in the project, continually referred me to different people she thought I should meet. She also lived just one building down from me, so I joined Sonia for the rest of her walk home.

One day after walking with Sonia, I spotted a poster for a production called ‘Walk a Mile.’ The poster was outside Hoxton Hall, and sitting below the poster was an Irishman named Alric.  Alric was the music director of the production, and the show was put on by Access All Areas, a theater company that works with local residents with severe learning disabilities. Several days later I came back to Hoxton Hall to attend the show. It was about world war two, and the loss of loved ones. Since most of the performers can’t read, Access All Areas’ productions are largely developed through improvisation and physical theater. I was captivated from start to finish. I stayed around after the show to have drinks with the cast and crew. Someone thought I was a member of the cast and purchased me several drinks. As everyone was clearing out of the pub, I introduced myself to Ciara and Nick, the director and creative officer of Access All Areas, and asked to meet with them.

Some days later I met with Ciara over coffee. Ciara told me she was getting ready to start a new project. She knew she would be working with Access All Areas performers in a similar workshop methodology to their previous productions. She expressed an interest in the local stories and histories of Hoxton. It was clear we had a common affinity in researching and exploring the neighborhood. We agreed that we should work together in some neighborly way.

With little idea of what form our collaboration would take, I invited Ciara over to PEER. There was a sense of confusion, matched by a willingness to see where things would go. The Access All Areas workshop group began meeting shortly thereafter. Ciara and I agreed that walking around the neighborhood was a great way to encounter local knowledge. So to introduce the idea of walking to the workshop group I led the group on its first walk. After this first walk we organize for the workshop group to be led on walks by other local residents. With feedback from the workshop members, Ciara and I identified a loose set of ideas, moments, and stories from the walks, that I then wrote into a script for a guided performative walk. Ciara used her theater training to work with performers, and during a summer street festival I led a ‘rehearsal’ walk through the neighborhood. Throughout the walk we encountered performers. While the walks were happening a story booth on Hoxton Street was set up to collect and exchange stories.

After the festival, the performers continued to develop their characters, and the script was rewritten by Ciara to incorporate some of the stories collected at the booth. Nathan, a filmmaker, had been working with the workshop members to record the walks and their experience. We then organized an exhibition of video, photos, found objects with corresponding stories, and a wall drawing of a map of Hoxton. We opened the exhibition a month later to accompany the final public walking tours. The final walkings encountered both performers and local residents throughout the neighborhood. Much of the audience was comprised of local residents, neighbors, friends, and family.

One of my favorite encounters was with Mark the local florist, who Sonia was so eager to introduce me to. He told the audience a story from his childhood. Down the street, 40+ years ago, there was a horse stables. The horses were working horses and connected to the stables was a “free house” pub. With the flow and punctuation of a naturally gifted storyteller, Mark drew everyone in close as he described one of the workmen’s winter rituals.

“They would heat their iron poking rods in the fire. It had to be white hot!” Gesturing with his hands as if he was holding the rod himself.

“They would take the white tip of the rod and slowly dip it into the top of their beer.” The white hot iron would apparently flake off and mix in with their drink.

Me You Hoxton Too, Mark tells his audience a story

Mark comes from a long line of Hoxton based florists. He has an intimate if not granular knowledge of the area. When you walk around the neighborhood with Mark he frequently points out small details, triggering explanations that blur personal memories, second hand stories, and historical readings, into an elaborately crafted story that all connects back to this small detail he just pointed out. One such example are a set of grooves on the nearby canal. As you walk along the canal’s tow-path, one passes under a series of bridges. As the curve of the bridge pushes into the walking space of the tow-path, you’ll consistently find a couple small grooves at about chest height. The tow-path and canal were originally an industrial artery for transporting goods. According to Mark the tiny grooves in the bridges were made by the ropes connecting horses to their loads as they marched up and down the path. By the late 1970s the path was opened for pedestrian use. With industrial use long gone, the canal is now marked my cafes, pubs, and expensive new housing developments.

Me You Hoxton Too, exhibition
Me You Hoxton Too, exhibition

The disciplinary differences between theater and art rarely became an issue, process oriented notions connected to critical pedagogy were a common point of interest. But while PEER was putting together their ‘press release’ for the exhibition and guided walks, Ciara from Access All Areas referred to the document as a ‘program.’ This was followed some negation of formatting and editing of the document. It’s a rather trivial point, but the formal distinctions between a gallery’s press release and a theater company’s program reflect the wider conceptual and disciplinary distinctions in how we understand what it is we are doing and the stories we tell ourselves. While I’m not about to tease out all of the issues this presented, I will reflect on my own role in the project and story I tell myself. I would say my role in Me You Hoxton Too played out on a number of levels, and on a rather meta-level my gesture was to bring two neighboring institutions into collaboration with one another. The first being a gallery that works with objects, and the second a theater company that works with people and stories. I think this is reflected in the formal quality of the exhibition and walks, the found objects and their stories, and the performative situations and their inseparable relationship with the social and material landscape of the neighborhood. In an interview with Ciara and Nick, they refer to the Me You Hoxton Too project as a ‘departure’ from their normal way of working. Whether it was a departure or an arrival, either way it was a lot of fun and I’ll always remember it as an important part of the year I lived in Hoxton.