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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

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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.

Artist Suzanne Lacy
Media event memorial for Victims of Hillside Strangler

“Art production of the 20th century might have been a rarified field, but in the 21st century, cultural production has become a necessary component of organizing social action. In other words, if the world is a stage, then the players must learn the skills of theater.” (Nato Thompson)

Consider the infamous Project Row Houses, a low income neighborhood in Houston Texas transformed and revived over 17+ years, much thanks to the artist-organizer Rick Lowe. Through a radical commitment to a specific place and group of people Lowe helped establish a residency program for artists and single mothers attending college. Or consider the work of the late Augusto Boal and the various creative strategies developed under the banner of the theater of the oppressed. Boal and his contemporaries, took an expanded notion of performance and within it developed a series of participatory strategies for addressing personal and collective struggle. Or currently working in Los Angeles is John Malpede and the Los Angeles Poverty Department, a homeless performance group working in downtown LA’s skid row. They’ve produced live theater events, parades, and a museum about skid row. As the LAPD has written “We want the narrative of the neighborhood to be in the hands of neighborhood people.”

Suzanne Lacy another Los Angeles based artist, whose 40+ years of facilitating socially engaged public performances tackling issues from rape to racism, comes out of a west coast US tradition of conceptual performance art and feminist activism. London based conceptual artist Stephen Willats, who was heavily influenced by cybernetics, produced a series of works in the 1970s at a few west London housing estates that were analog frameworks for communication and collaboration. The projects can now be seen as extremely clear precursors to contemporary online communications, networked culture, and online citizenship. Meanwhile in Brazil, figures like Augusto Boal come from a tradition of theater in South America, the disciplinary distinction within the ‘arts’ along with the geographical and historical specificity of their origin add to the complexity of how to make sense of these works and their producers. Cultural producers whose methodologies are inseparable from the wider social and political conditions they inhabit. Shannon Jackson writes in her book Social Works “Whether cast in aesthetic or social terms, freedom and expression are not opposed to obligation and care, but in fact depend upon each other…” (Jackson 14).

Whether discussed in therapeutic or political terms, participation and collaboration are common themes that connect these practices. Participation is often discussed as a counter force to the alienating qualities of neoliberalism and advanced capitalism, while collaboration evoke more personal accounts of pedagogy and empathy. Ultimately the answer to this question of what role the ‘arts’ play in social change can be found in the methods and practices that are as varied and as mixed as the practitioners and conditions behind them. At best they offer us models or fleeting insights that might be reworked to help us meet the needs of our time and place.