Hackney Wick Res publica
By Richard Marshall.
Laura Oldfield Ford, Savage Messiah #’s 1-9, 2005-2009
There are dirty tricks all over when it comes to the architectural dreams of London. It gets mixed up with views about the class system, about wealth and poverty and requires collective monitoring all the time to avoid both sentimentality and complacency when trying to write about it all. There are resources for doing this but it takes time and skill. It requires avoidance of cliché and self-aggrandisement, avoidance of kitch romanticism.
Dirty tricks are mean tricks and so there is a need for feelings. Anger is appropriate. Dissent is a broader term, so perhaps better, because it conjures up a spirit of resistance and action entwined with strong feelings. Dissent comes with a bid to ‘strike a match and blow’ attached, a protest kickback.
When talking about architecture and building you’re talking about places where people live and work and thrive. So you’re always partly talking about who gets a say in deciding how to live, how to thrive. And the dirty tricks are about keeping people out of the process so that money can be the main decision taker. For any discussion about the style of a building environment, the real racket is about power and money, as Owen Hatherley, discussing the pros and cons of Modernist Brutalism, makes clear in his book and in his recent interview.
This is the dissenting ground identified by Milton in Paradise Lost when he writes of ‘Wolves shall succeed for teachers, grievous wolves,/Who all the sacred mysteries of heaven/To their own vile advantages shall turn/Of lucre and ambition, and the truth/With superstitions and traditions taint…’ and from which loops back the Miltonic warning that imagines a New Jerusalem ‘Founded in righteousness and peace and love/To bring forth fruits joy and eternal bliss’ will serve as a solid base for revolt. So the real deal is between the dissenting juice of dreamscape communitarian vernacular access opposing the anti-democratic, hierarchical authoritarianism of your property developer speculator.
Milton’s committed imagination gets up large in the faces of the smooth-tongued politicians, landlord scum bullies, developers and all their money-hunting cronies. And with this lively scorn there’s also the possibility of the fresh, phantasmagoria of an Andrew Marvell too which draws up a kind of prelapsarian innocence, a green dreaming world done maybe in a weird mix of the class of ‘68 Parisian’s beach beneath the streets (or rather the magical forest of Arden) mode plus psychedelic hooch.
What’s happening? There’s a despotic gigantism soaring up in the urban landscapes. A great architectural pule chimes with the anti-semitic Eliot’s rotten authoritarian vision of European history and culture, the dead-end viciousness of his tropes from ‘Gerontion’ but into bricks and concrete. The argument here is that his obnoxious anti-humane, racist and anti-democratic vision of culture actually chimes with the greedy lasciviousness of current spiv- business deals souring the milky counter-pulse of Miltonic republicanism up in the East of the capital. Strong-armed secrecy funded by immense money is proving more brutal than any brutalist architectural modernity, and the chief of the moderns’ hierarchical elitist vision of western culture, who wrote of a drowned Jew to deliberately insult democratic and communitarian impulses without even using a capital J in the pre-1963 print version, squats over this like a classical Creon refusing to mourn and refusing compassion.
So we are Antigone in the face of the brute. For a while filthy politics gets a showing up from time to time but afterwards it gets up and goes again without pity and without stopping. So for example, a year ago Will Henley wrote a piece in bd, the architects website, reporting that plans to build several 50-storey high towers in Shoreditch were being hidden from the public. He wrote that ‘Joint developers Hammerson and Ballymore are understood to be behind two Allies & Morrison-and one Foster-designed tower on the largely derelict Bishopsgate Goods Yard, while Hammerson is also working on a KPF skyscraper planned for the adjacent Norton Folgate site. Critics claim that despite pre-application discussions involving many organisations — including local councils Hackney and Tower Hamlets, CABE and English Heritage — two public drop-in sessions last week on plans for the Goods Yard site made no reference to the towers’. Tracey Emin got name-checked in the rebel cause standing up against the developers but the bitter stew keeps bubbling onwards.
Of course it’s true that London’s always been a froth of scummy lather, always a heady broth, a filth puddle to some but Londoners know that too much hygiene kills. Recently a vat load of fatty deposits was cleared from the sewers under Leicester Square and immediately some pet food chain was negotiating for the rights to distribute the scowered muck. London draws gold from shit and that’s not always bad. Love making, remember, happens in the places of excrement.
But foul isn’t always fair: scum landlords are legends of horror, and it can sometimes happen that in trying to get a glimpse of the chandelier you break the glass and get cut up. Iain Sinclair’s recent attempts to memorialize his disappearing Hackney left him stranded outside his own library when petty tyrannical council officials decreed that he wasn’t the kind of writer with the kind of message that fellow citizens would want to hear.
Thus it is that mystical nomadics work out Guattari and Deleuze’s advice to be ‘without strategy’ to counter Creon’s ‘without pity.’ Milton’s dissenting republic blends with Marvellian green consciousness to produce a mystical alliance of communitarian dreams. In this context architecture becomes a waking argument that builds up out of the poet Clares’ idea of ‘the living sea of waking dreams,/where there is neither sense of life or joys,/But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems;/Even the dearest, that I love the best,/Are strange – nay, rather stranger than the rest.’ Clare manages to remind us that the arguments about the built urban landscape are about the intrusion onto untrodden space, unshaped, unwalled and without landlords, mortgages, a space of the aboriginal dream for ‘the grass below – and the vaulted sky.’ Architecture reminds us that space wasn’t always colonized. Which of course links with the whole vast consciousness of the anti-colonial imagination.
The architectural battles in the East of London engage therefore the Lettrists and psychogeographers, mystics and political spanners and work their way into the dreaded underbelly of a hidden, strange and frightening zone of communitarian exit and democratic defilement, a mutant place and a mutant sound fluming out from the future, loading places, loading sounds into the brackish airs of the Oval, Cambridge Heath Road, the Dolphin public house, the Town Hall Square Hackney, The Samuel Pepys, the Cabaret Voltaire, Hackney Wick, Dalston & Dalston Lane South, Twyford Down, Claremont Road, the Four Aces, Covent Garden, Broadway Market, Haggerston, Jermyn Street, Paddington, Bristol, Paris, Woolich, Elephant and Castle, Peckam, Cambridge, St Pauls, Toxteth, Handsworth, Streatham, Walthamstow, the Blackwell Peninsula, Canons Marsh, Bristol, Netherwood, the Rosicrucian Lodge in Peckham, Mare Street, King Edward Road, Tudor Grove, Temple Meads, Roman Road, Stratford, Angel Lane, Eastway, Lea Navigation, Lea Bridge Roundabout, Chobham, Leyton Leisure Lagoon, Carpenters Road, Isle of Dogs, Major Road Methodist Church, stacking them up like a neap motherload, waves coming in from the ruins of the future where a wrecked Olympic stadium lies in its own wreckage as if proving God by a process of Phidius exhaustion.
The zines of Laura Oldfield Ford are reechy smokes inking out these disappearing prophetic spaces. They are made out of folded A4 sheets of white paper, stapled photocopies of sharp line-drawings and shard-like prose. They build images of a cityscape and bind up political messages into a series of oblique, quirky, haunting sigils of ‘messianic time hidden in the built environment.’ The paper is relished and more obviously present than if these were bound up like primmer books. The emphatic paper reminds us that for Elizabeth Bishop paper symbolized a dwellings’ ‘frail improvisation’ when she was writing to Marianne Moore from Key West about where the poor blacks lived. So paper is a dwelling place of improvised lives and inflected a tone for Bishop that came from a memory indwelling for her from Herbert’s poem ‘Discipline’ imploring: ‘Throw away thy rod,/Throw away thy wrath:/O my God/Take the gentle path.’ So by foregrounding the paper in a way that conventional trade books don’t, Ford instructs a veiled gentleness over the nettled ferocity of her writing and pictures.
And the ferocity is heady stuff and the prose good enough to stand by the images. There’s a kind of neglect in them, a hiatus of style that shakes itself down and gets real, that has that not ‘put on’ approach which Whitman praises in Burns whene writes of Burns’s vernacular pulse which ‘…pleases the soul more than the wrought and re-wrought polish of most perfect verse…’. So the art is not over fancy, artificial, arty-farty but rather works lines sure as fancy, like a bees flight, a dateless buzzy melody impatient of ink. She uses the paper space to create strange angles of looking as well as perspectives that brings everything up close without losing a sense of other, more perplexing distances. So a Chirico-like metaphysical surreality is buckled to a straight shufty, a skillful looking out that’s also a kind of looking away too. It’s an effect Hardy grasped when he wrote ‘Everything glowed with a gleam;/Yet we were looking away!’
The writing is often on scraps of paper photocopied onto the back and the use of this low-tech technique enhances the urgent feel of each snap, as if we’re caught in some underground counter culture secret, Russian poets writing under the pressurised shadow of Stalin. And this is London now. Prose is often typed, but there are scraps of hand-scrawled stuff too, and large hand-done printed messages that spike out across folds in the pages. In the ‘Mayday/Dark Times Special 2009’ there’s a haunting picture of a bonfire down in the left hand corner that somehow holds a sinister implication for the tower block and house on the other page. There are lines at wacked out angles that stream into the black and white starkness and something damaging comes to mind, as if a ghost is watching and what is being burnt is horribly still.
Yet if there are these shots and atmospherics there’s also a junky, lived out feeling for the primitive places that show respect for its subjects. The characters steel themselves against the wintry invasion of the filthy lucre with a kind of immense stoic joy, all mute at a threshold of unbearable haunting. This is what Tom Paulin in his cracking essay ‘Living Ginger’ fingers as the ‘homeless on-the-road quality’ of Jack Yeats’s paintings, another political artist embodying ‘his gloriously deracinated communalism… like bright rags figured in raw oilpaint under a sky like a tinker’s twisted withy tent.’ For these republicans it’s a ballad that’s being painted or drawn out. The springy collective sing-song of ballad making catches the quickening sprightliness of Ford’s zines, so each is a kind of oral performance, a song eratically makeshift and jim-cracked but infused with an aching atmosphere edged by a snappy bonfire of Blakes’ Tygers of Wrath forge. It gets up close to the happenstance of life, like the current US tv show ‘The Wire’ manages with the inhabitants of the Baltimore Projects. Lives are invested with a curiosity of intent; there are few monsters, just immense problems and lives sometimes losing their footings.
But there be monsters nevertheless in Ford’s work. On the backside of the zine a smiling face in an expensive open necked striped shirt gazes out flatly. To one side are white words floating out of the black ink darkness ATTACK BORING YUPPIE MONDO CULTURE and across his chest ARBOURSIDE. So this is a Creon man, a pitiless scion of the new age that can’t understand the weight of even a funeral. The lines drawing this scene are brisk, short and always furiously marking, scratching, urgent so then the images are all ruffled like speeding objects caught in a snap, or else in reverse of that, still moments that are suddenly made to shimmer. This is that ‘living ginger’ Yates tries for in his work; the captured in-the-moment feel of process, of delivering rather than delivered, a buzzy theatricality without pre-planned staginess, the quickening improvisatory spontaneity of the insouciant rootless.
The urban desolation is not the present scene but the destruction that is being brought forth out of the present’s belly. The drawings are drawings of Dicken’s ghost of the future, as if Ford is trying on an obituary before the event. Leamington Spa, Hastings, Bristol, Cambridge, Paddington, Peckham, Hackney, Elephant & Castle, North Greenwich are floating in the projected holograms of their own release, of future projects of replacement. They place-check horrors. Polaroids of the dead. Ghosts of the future and ghosts of the past, the work suffuses with the imagined power of a London resisting, London that can’t be Venice, as Iain Sinclair has shown recently, and Owen Hatherley knows no one wants and Ford insists are products of negative equity ghetto makers, mortgage fraud gangsters, regeneration scams. These are projects that pretend there are young professionals who will buy in to it somewhere, but they never arrive.
Brooke House in Basildon is drawn so it only just makes it into the page. It’s a pale faced equity ghetto that from Harbourside to the Pinnacles in Woolwich makes a rising out of a depth like the pale white monster that floats up in Moby Dick for a brief moment, a Kraken emerging out of darkness into the light for a sinister calm adagio before slipping back again, down into the hidden horror of its own existence. The futures Ford dreams are burning and cinder-ash pale, dead livid buildings that have something like a curse in them from another world.
So in the ‘Issue 7’ she sits as Rousseau in 1753 bewailing the first property owner, leaning against a tree with E8 painted onto its bark. This one turns over Hackney’s eye of sedition and links the architecture to the music of Bronski Beat and ‘spazzoid broken dancing’. Ford is a great writer, spiky and mage-like, doing the short, rumours –of-prophecy style that Sinclair does with eye and nose close enough to the shit to know it.
(courtesy of Hales Gallery)
The art again arrests; one picture has a mall looking as if it might be the mouthpiece of some underworld place of the dead and the people are drawn as being partly see-through, partly fogged up, with particularly blanked out expressions under RED ACTION and UP THE PROVOS graffitti on a tiled walkway crossover above which is a further graffito SMASH. Throughout, the drawn people are hardly able to fill in their own contours, as if their solid flesh has dribbled into the tar dark of the immaculately detailed perspectives of shopping interiors, bridges and high rise Brutalist blocks. This could be an image from Dante, from Eliot’s ‘Waste Land’.
But then the picture is suddenly repeated but this time is not photocopied as cropped and so now it expands to a tower block rising up into light whilst the characters moving right are turning into pitch dark, are literally disappearing. There are discrete and intimate sketches of anonymous faces, in one a hand caresses gently a pint that all seems feather light, almost invisible. Ford does this, gets the beauty and grace of her people which makes the anti-Olympic refrain more endearing, politically stronger as it howls with social conscience for these faces, these people, the scene she describes, getting in further than mere lefty slogan trollies. By opening out the image from its cribbed first moment Ford also acts to dismiss any sense of hierarchical monarchical authoritarian yearnings that the first version, reminiscent of Eliot’s imagination, might have suggested for a wicked moment.
There’s a fluxy modernism to her two page spread of flyover roads drawn from the scrubby undergrowth beneath them. It’s a great drawing that captures the hectic speed and exuberance of the roads overhead, a Ballardian shock that Hatherley would love. And near the back there’s a photo of a gas tower with big black flowers going all arborial in front whilst the strange zoopy architecture seems to glow out of a sun burst, opulent and palatial, dead strange and glorious. Again, it’s a matter of the zoomyness of the camera angle and her catching some kind of strange Marvellian light.
She knows what’s up: ‘London is not only the backdrop but the fabric of adventures, drifts, encounters. Love erupts and emerges as a subversive force.’ And so this takes account of the warmth and intimacy of the bound up pieces, but there’s something else here as well, and she knows it. ‘Real engagement ruptures and tears at a veneer of spectacle and threatens its stability. The chimera, illusion or manufactured construction of love and desire is shown up as hollow, wretched and malign in the moment of encounter with the real, uncorrupted experiences. We hang on by a mere thread, carpe diem.’ And suddenly the feather-like lightness and delicacy of some of the images, the sense of movement in stillness and vice versa, the sense of a glimpse being given but then being moved on before it stabilizes, the sense of something happening in the moment it happens but not in anything restored, recalled, remaindered, this is what happens in the pieces.
The drawings scamper and scuttle along, delighting in piercing power points of energy and transcendence by moving over, burning up, of not being there. Like the great Gustav Metzger, who created detonated art that destroyed itself in the process of reaching intensity, Ford trails her finger in the water of her underground Lea river and so gives it large to the property developers and thug financiers, yuppies, Nazi landlords and debt collectors who like zombie towers begin to crowd around the sacred spaces of her urban lands with graceless, careless bombast.
In the ‘Spring 2009’ copy there’s an upmarket paper being used for the zine, upmarket compared to the others in that it’s a bit shinier, and she uses this to produce a series of luminous urban scapes, a tremendous river scene that is haunting, brooding and seems to smudge itself into endless sky. Yet there are also some odd kiddy heads, half head and half headstone, staring out of the page, and over the page from that a detailed pen and ink lock sequence picture that grips the low hedgerow foliage of the urban scene that riverruns Joycean through London right from 1973. Hedges remind us that it’s the smaller birds that need the cover of them and they stand for the kind of mystical Snipe landscape of Clare, who works up a scrubby pastoral sympathy and comradely merging with the powerless and the weak.
1973 returns and with it a heart scrawl narrative shapes out her subliminal animist vision– she’s about the liminal zones between Leyton and Stratford and telling a story of a kicking scene down under the radar resulting in lads from South Yorkshire getting the pints in and doing a psychotic version of the Hokey Kokey. Again, the pictures illustrate a mood and atmosphere that shines as bright as all the latent hopes for the benefit gigs and meetings round Hackney at the time where the word was out that this was going to be bigger than the Poll Tax riot.
The hallucinatory quality of the work is joined by the gruff politics and there’s a sense of a time rising up, done with a sense of the uncanny and it reminded me of how beautiful agit-prop can be when made to disclose futures and pasts simultaneously. There are so many things streaming into these works – and the web pages she’s made too – mixtures of the Blake visionary with hard-nosed realism. It reminded me of Baudelaire needing vengeance like a tired man needing a bath – Ford is seeking vengeance in these underground city scapes, There is a fire in the belly of these beasts, and Ford is calling out for revenge.
And the whole sequence made me think of another poet who writes about truth Gorgonises all else into itself and is the unoppugnably reality, something you digest, where he says ‘I pledge you in the first and last crust, / The rocks rattling in the bead-proof seas.’ MacDairmid is a strangely unread poet despite being a giant of Modernism like Joyce, and this has probably something to do with the agit-prop nature of his writing and a peculiar idea that writing with its politics on its sleeve cannot be aesthetic. I think this elitist position is seriously wrong and is perhaps why it’s with some of MacDairmid’s energies that Ford’s work seems to be honoring.
Ford’s is the deadly seeing, the seeing of the hungry with nothing interposed between her sensitivities and the barren but beautiful reality, seeing in such a way that it becomes for a brief moment menacingly clear – that’s the phrase I was remembering, the ‘menacingly clear’ moment ‘of a brightness through a burning crystal.’ So suddenly the great Marxist poet of Scots nationalism, MacDiarmid, is rising into these London works from his Shetland ruralism, reminding us of a dialect that gets out from under the rural/urban identities into a new space and how the inflections of populous lefty politics can rise, swell and shimmer.
The thought was about the delicate and subtle forces at play in this work and then about Ford’s the use of agit-prop to try and jar the sensibility. Agit-prop can be hackneyed, unjuiced and fatigued, too thought-out, too gridded, hardened up into spiritless, dead cliché where mysteries are lost but encountering Ford there’s a spermyness in her work that took me back to MacDiarmid and so that’s another connection. And it reminded me that the focus on the local, primitive and small was the ground of all great universality, that what seems like a subject relevant only for those in the locality is actually no such thing, and that the witness in such a place is also a witness at the heart of everything. So in his poem ‘In The Shetland Islands’ MacDiarmid writes that he is ‘no further from the centre of things in the Shetlands here than in London, New York or Tokyo’ and it seems that Ford reminds us that with a waking up imaginative zest you get to the big centre, rove out into the powerlines that tread back to her Paris of the Commune and the adorable identifiable contraries of Giordano Bruno and that the local is the universe, that the private can break in to the public, and vice versa, that the abused can be finally resurrected, reversed, so the urban begets the au contraire, etc.
So Ford is construed as a Rilke at Muzot or Duino and the art becomes a kind of ‘Island Funeral’, ‘a procession winding like a little grey snake between the walls of irregular grey stones piled carelessly on one another. Sometimes on this winding track, the leaders are doubled back quite near to us.’
This fragment of MacDiarmid’s poem coils us back to Ford’s political anger, the fierce concern for where leaders are tracking, how what they do comes snaking back to threaten us. MacDiarmid wrote his poem in 1939, with Europe about to go up in flames, himself personally expelled from the Communist Party for joining with the Scots Nats, and so too is Ford looking out at a prophetic future of fires burning, someone not looking for precedence but innovation in the face of power, raving out of her own secret lands to reach the disintegrative process of her dissenting art by naming the sites, the roads, the times of day in which revolt will become fleshy. London’s toff Mayor Johnson should be reminded that back in the eighteenth century there were mock elections for a non-existent London Mayor by rebellious spirits protesting the corruption of moneyed greed and their political reps, that the history of pamphleteers is one of resistance and wild music, the pibroch dirging of shaggy fluxy highland bagpipes, and that what’s happening in London on his watch will bite him. Which again takes us to the political in art and its vetching, tedrilled verve.
‘Serve the community too. Their loneliness/is only because they belong to a wider community/Than that of their immediate environment,/Not to one country or race, but to humanity,/Not to this age but to all time, /As your pibrochs reached to Eternity/- Your pibrochs that are like the glimpses/Of reality transcending all reason…’ This is what I like in MacDiarmid, the tension between the pull of the local and the broadening out into something so expansive it blows everything sky high and there’s that quality in the Ford work too, an aggression and desire that pours out of the intimate and the close-up but that eerily gathers powers from an ever widening community of spirits, a better utopia. So Ford is part of this imagination, an imagination that from Milton, Blake, Marvell, Dickens, Clare, MacDiarmid and Sinclair clamours against the forces of Satanic Mill makers.
Laura Oldfield Ford works against the chauvinistic urge to separate the artistic from the political, and does so with an unusually dynamic, zealous partisanship that makes what she does seem fresh, generous, edgy and nettly. If her work was a soup it would be very peppery and piping hot. Addressing the forces of Creon with directness and anger she has produced bold vernacular politicised images, like Tom Paulin thought Clare had done, that ‘…dream of unlocking a frozen language and redeeming an unjust society.’
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Richard Marshall is contributing editor to 3:AM and lives in London.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, August 22nd, 2009.