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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.

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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.

On the 14th July, Dustin O’Hara will lead a walk through the East London neighbourhood of Hoxton, and along the way encounter Access All Area performers. The performers have interpreted moments and stories from earlier walks with local residents. Hoxton: Walking, Encountering, Seeing, is a partnership between between Access All Area and the Peer participation. Generously supported by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation and the Lotter Funds.

Please RSVP for one of following walks by emailing info@peeruk.org

1:00 PM Saturday 14th July 2012
2:30 PM Saturday 14th July 2012
4:00 PM Saturday 14th July 2012

All walks will start and end at PEER. Walks will be followed by tea and biscuits at PEER.