From Brooklyn Works to Brooklynism? An exhibition review by Anna Netri

Review and photographs by Anna Netri

This text was written in response to an exhibition of works by Louise Finney, Nick Grindrod, Laura Page, Sean Williams, Jonathan Orlek and Goran Vodicka at Kelham Island Museum (June-August 2019).

This exhibition is part of a series of cultural events in Kelham Island that explores the contribution of heritage and creativity in urban identity. A key area of discussion concerns the role of artists and maker communities in transforming a neglected industrial area into an award winning neighbourhood.

It is proven that the character of architecture influences our lives, as does urban planning at a bigger scale. This exhibition examines the role of urbanism, exploring how inhabitants interact with the built and unbuilt environments.  This leads to an exploration of how we perceive the spaces we live in and the way we acknowledge them.

Our awareness of place is certainly individual and selective, but also creative. Through creativity, we constructively participate in the making of place. The exhibition explores this process and reconstructs our awareness through the narratives of the artists’ perceptions, the heritage of the Kelham Island Museum, the neighbourhood and its inhabitants . The environment that shapes our lives is made visible or imaginable.

The first part of this tripartite exhibition is hosted in an enclosed room, suggestive perhaps of a more abstract or inner perception.  Two different types of awareness of our surroundings and relationships with time can be recognized in the works by artists Nick Grindrod and Sean Williams. Grindrod ‘controls’ space, shaping and exploring it, with a subjective perception of time, which is continuous or timeless; while Williams ‘controls’ time, freezing it and immobilising the light. Each second ticks by and is captured through this subjective perception of the space, which is also reality.

Some of the tools of urbanism can be associated with Grindrod’s artworks. Lines and shapes are used like streets and buildings to create places. However , the way the colours are applied in ‘From Every Angle’, reminiscent of spaces of congregation and flow, seems to suggest that spaces are determined only by the human use of them, without real physical constraints. The notion that streets and buildings are not the only main elements that shape the framework of a city emerges in another artwork, where dark stripes are like traces of human presence and consequently marks on the landscapes. ‘Non-Digital Memories’ seems to recall how scales, proportions and compositions, along with memories, have a significant role in the design of the urban spaces.

Sean Williams’ artwork speaks beautifully to what is evident and what impacts on our environment, and how we barely see it. Whilst site works and temporary installations significantly modify landscapes, we often don’t acknowledge that, or how it impacts on our lives. Williams captures these modifications, freezes time and returns to us what our senses unconsciously capture. The artist’s crystallisation of a certain type of light and his use of detail with colour open a reflection on what the abilities and opportunities are to make the spaces we live in beautiful.

A video installation by Jon Orlek and Goran Vodicka, positioned at the far end of the room as a focal point of perspective, resembles a door frame to the Parkwood Springs area. A dialogue between two observers while they cross this landscape between the landfill site and Kelham Island, it’s more like an open conversation giving voice to various individuals and various spatial imaginaries and realities. There is the perception of the architects, who have ideas just by seeing marks on the landscape, and the perception of the passers-by or users. This video is like an extension between an individual and the built environment, the  community and the landscape transformed by both, the nature and the users.

In this exhibition, the way the works have been selected and set amidst the collections of Kelham Island Museum, itself a heritage building, generates recognition and narrative.  Louise Finney’s collection of drawings is installed in the ground-floor display area, alongside some industrial machines and next to the River Don Steam Engine. At first sight these technical drawings, with all their attention to the details of mechanical components, seem to recall the inventiveness of the designers of industrial machines or of the architects who create the spaces we live in. But the handwritten notes on the drawings further reveal further detail – of the memories, stories, and associations within Kelham Island’s surrounds and those of the residents and passers-by. Finney’s work creates bridges between the present and the past (or memories); between the individual and the community.

By walking out of the main museum’s building and entering the café area, you will reach the third display. An exhibition of photos emerging from Laura Page’s collaboration with Dr Komarine Romdenh-Romluc (a philosopher from the University of Sheffield) reveals how the architecture and heritage of Kelham Island have subconsciously inspired people’s lives and how they belong to this place.  Each photo captures the individual and his/her contemporaneity and their relationship with the surrounds.

Page’s work shows that it was not just the convenience of cheap rents that attracted people to open their businesses in Kelham Island.  The character of the architecture, the freedom of an open plan warehouse, the sense of interconnection with the atmosphere and past identity of this former industrial area in Sheffield, together inspired the new occupiers  and enabled their creativity.

Foundry

In the 1980s, Sheffield became known for its vibrant electronic music scene. Its luminaries drew on and made use of the industrial sounds that could be heard all over the city, emanating from the drop forges, works and foundries. Foundry – the most recent of the plastiCities projects – revisits the sounds of the city, in one of the areas most strongly connected to the now largely defunct industries which gave the 80s their soundtrack – Shalesmoor. The composers and researchers made a series of field recordings which have been archived as a sound bank for others to listen to and use. These materials also served as the basis for a series of seven commissioned sound pieces, which will be presented online and as a limited edition CD.

The compositions extract and re-frame quotations from the acoustic ecology of the area. They reflect months of deep listening and sustained attention to the sounds which are at once constant and everyday, but also, typically, ‘unheard’. Our aim is not to recycle these everyday objects and sounds. By re-casting ‘everyday sounds’ as ‘music’, by hearing harmony in the cacophony of rush hour, we are creating a space in which, quite simply, there is a possibility of imagining how all this might be different.

Chris Bevan, Amanda Crawley Jackson, Alex Gowan-Webster, Jonathan Higgins, Martin Hogg, Jordan Platt, Vanessa Massera, Adam Stansbie, Thom Wilson

Inflecting time’s arrow, or the art of exploring impossibilities

Inflecting time’s arrow, or the art of exploring impossibilities

‘The city is an oeuvre, closer to a work of art than a simple material product’ (Henri Lefebvre, The Right to the City, 1968).

When the French philosopher and sociologist Henri Lefebvre called for ‘the right to the city’ in his 1968 book, Le Droit à la ville, he was not making the case for the redistribution of urban property. Instead, he was advocating the democratic right of the people to participate in and to appropriate the city as oeuvre (artwork). By this he meant that the ideal city, for him, would be one that is worked perpetually by its inhabitants and that this process of inhabiting (in other words making and re-making the city) would take priority over consuming ready-made cityscapes (or habitats). The city he evokes (and which he describes as the properly urban) is a working site, characterized by disequilibrium, unpredictability, desire and encounter, a place that survives ‘in the fissures of planned and programmed order’ (Lefebvre, 1996: p. 129). It is a space of untold possibilities, in which the meaning of what is and what can be remains (perpetually) at stake. By contrast, capitalist logic forecloses the possibility of making new meanings in and of the city. It transforms the use value of the city into exchange value, concealing the emancipatory plasticity of the site with the hard signs and values of profit. In the capitalist city, the inhabitant, the user of the city, is instead conceived as a consumer of signs, a client to be kept happy. The city as a place of consumption, Lefebvre reminds us, goes hand in hand with this idea of the consumption of place.

Fredric Jameson famously wrote that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to envisage the end of capitalism. Lefebvre applies similar thinking to the capitalist city, noting that we often perceive it as being ‘as full as an egg or as an entirely written page’ (Lefebvre, 1996: p. 104), a physical and ideological space in which there is little or no opportunity for us to intervene or make significant change. Certainly, it seems that all too often the only ‘wiggle room’ we’re able to imagine for ourselves remains contained within dominant ideological structures.

For example, in Britain, it seems that we find it very difficult to imagine the city centre as anything other than ‘the high street’. It’s true that shops have, historically, influenced the morphological structure of our city centres. Their streets and architecture were constructed for the purpose of trade and a whole social structure grew up around the actions of browsing, buying, conversing and taking refreshment between purchases. Still today, street furniture and the layout of pedestrianized areas point to shopping as a key factor in city centre design and planning. However, the economic crisis, the rise of online shopping and other factors including the number of available car parking places and the proliferation of out-of-town malls have together produced a sharp downturn in the numbers of consumers who choose to shop on the high street. Since 2007, nearly 300 major UK retailers have gone under (affecting almost 2500 stores) and countless small businesses have closed their doors. Between 2009-2011, city centre vacancy rates doubled. What we’ve inherited, then, on the high street is a form that is increasingly without function, and yet literally set in stone.

There’s a left-right consensus in government that as much as possible must be done to keep city centre shops open. Money has been made available through some high-profile schemes to ‘re-think the high street’ and despite the introduction in 2014 of a new PDR (permitted development right) it still remains difficult to convert retail properties into residential accommodation, the thinking being that the latter doesn’t create long-term jobs and salaries. Mary Portas, who headed up a review commissioned by government in 2011, described its aims thus: ‘once we invest in and create social capital in the heart of our communities, the economic capital will follow’. In other words (and this is underscored by the first of the review’s five headline recommendations – that town centres should be ‘run like businesses’), the point for her is that the means of producing capital might need to change, but capital as an end remains unchanged. It seems also that even many ‘grassroots’ initiatives to re-think and re-make our city centres also remain grounded in doing retail, even if they are claim to be doing retail differently. The glut of ‘alternative’ pop-up shops, window displays by local artists and other ‘meanwhile’ solutions, all of which shore up the premise that this is but an economic hiatus, neither challenge the neoliberal status quo or respond usefully and creatively to the irrefutable downturn in city centre shopping. Instead, they paper over the cracks of a socio-economic model that requires not so much an aesthetic sticking plaster as a radical structural overhaul. The ideology of consumption – that is, the idea of the city centre as a space to be consumed and a space in which to consume – remains intact.

So what should we make of Lefebvre’s call for the city to be inhabited as oeuvre? As artwork? In fact, the connection between art and the modern capitalist city is a difficult and ambivalent one. In the nineteenth century, while the Impressionists embarked on their radical attempt to capture something of the fleeting, rapidly changing quality of industrialising cities such as Paris and London, Baron Haussmann – the self-proclaimed ‘demolition artist’ responsible for dramatically re-making the urban fabric of the French capital – commissioned photographers to make propagandistic ‘before and after’ images that would be used to persuade the people of Paris of the social usefulness of an initiative born largely, in fact, of military, political and financial interests. Similarly today, art is harnessed to the needs of the regenerating, branded city. Artists, when they are not asked to work for free, are offered financial incentives to package and sell their practice as product to the public and private corporations who manage our cityscapes. ‘Percentage for art’ schemes variously request or require of developers of residential, commercial and public space a small percentage of their overall budget for the purposes of commissioning art that will be publicly sited. This is perceived as ‘adding value’ to regeneration and ‘enriching’ urban space. Artists are also employed to work with communities whose landscapes are being transformed or ‘regenerated’, with a view to encouraging the latter’s ‘buy-in’ to the project and reinforcing the illusion that they have some creative say in what is happening. Beyond these funded opportunities, there are also, of course, invitations to sell artworks in pop-up shops and galleries, or make street art, or window displays in the now defunct retail spaces described just a moment ago… And then, at another level again, there’s the infamous ‘Bilbao effect’. Every city worth its salt wants a contemporary art space (with gift shop attached) that draws in the tourists, drives the economy, draws inward investment and renews the urban fabric, though since the crisis of 2008 art’s magical effects can of course no longer be guaranteed…

Writing in the middle of the last century, Lefebvre was alert to the dangers of art’s problematic complicity in the top-down meaning making of the capitalist city, yet also keenly aware of its critical and creative potential. He writes:

To put art at the service of the urban does not mean to prettify urban space with works of art. This parody of the possible is a caricature. Rather, [we argue] that time-spaces become works of art and that former art reconsiders itself as source and model of appropriation of space and time. (Lefebvre, 1996: p. 173)

Through this prism, art is reconceived as ‘a capacity to transform reality, to appropriate at the highest level the facts of the “lived”, of time, space, the body and desire’ (Lefebvre, 1996: p. 164). The space-time of the city, rather than being endured or accepted with passive resignation (ibid, pp. 156-157), becomes the very material from which the properly urban might be sculpted. In other words, the city itself should be understood as a plastic object, the consistency, form and texture of which are at one level determined by what has been, yet the stakes and future of which remain open to (re)appropriation by its inhabitants. It is in this sense, and in contrast to the ‘full egg’ model of the capitalist city, that Lefebvre perceives a gap between the fact of the city and its practice. To inhabit the city is, for Lefebvre, synonymous with critical art practice; it involves interrogating, and more specifically denaturalising, what is and, consequently, what it seems must follow, by exposing their radical contingency. To inhabit the city, in other words, is to imagine that all this might be otherwise.

The works made in the context of the plastiCities project share a common interest in reconfiguring the fact of the city, its objects, sounds and signs. For example, in Is this not a wasteland? Richard Ward destabilises dominant urban taxonomies and re-opens the hermeneutic complexity of ‘wasteland’, which is in fact a discursive ideological production, to other configurations of interpretation and intervention. The compositions sculpted from ordinary and everyday sounds found on and near the Furnace Park site can be heard through listening posts engineered by Thom Wilson, Sam Varcoe and Ben Wadsworth. With ingenuity and craftsmanship they extracted empty paint tins from the cycle of consumption and obsolescence to re-make them as conductors of sound. Similarly, David McLeavy’s stark images decontextualize objects found at Furnace Park. These empty cans of spray paint, rusting padlocks and photocells, along with the lumps of industrial stuff that we simply cannot identify, are a reflection on the processes of production, releasing the labour and forces embedded in the commodity of the ‘steel city’. An archive of the obsolete, McLeavy makes no recommendation as to what use this archive might be put, other than inviting us to contemplate its possibilities.

Lefebvre, as we have seen, describes a gap between the fact of the city and its practice, between what the city is and what we make of it (literally and conceptually). This gap, for him, is the space of politics, agency and engagement; it is the space in which we might deflect time’s arrow, interrupting the ‘natural progress’ of capitalism’s logic and recalibrating what we are made to understand is possible and impossible. This deflection, or interruption, is how we have interpreted the political valence of détournement and derive. The event of art institutes a space for thought, a critical distance from what is, and – very simply – creates the conditions for exploring impossibilities.

‘Art is not, in the first instance, political because of the messages and sentiments it conveys concerning the state of the world. Neither is it political because of the manner in which it might choose to represent society’s structures, or social groups, their conflicts or identities. It is political because of the very distance it takes with respect to these functions, because of the type of space and time that it institutes, and the manner in which it frames this time, peoples this space’. (Deranty, 2014: p. 23).

Amanda Crawley Jackson & Martin Elms, 2015.

An essay written to accompany our work being shown in The Art of Wandering exhibition at 35 Chapel Walk gallery, July-August 2015.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Deranty, Jean-Philippe, Jacques Rancière: Key Concepts (London: Routledge, 2014).

Lefebvre, Henri, Writings on Cities, translated and edited by Eleonore Kofman and Elizabeth Lebas (Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 1996).

Rancière, Jacques, The Emancipated Spectator, translated by Gregory Elliott (London: Verso, 2009).