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Ridley Road Market with Tamara Stoll
26.05.2020 Arman Nouri
Photographer Tamara Stoll’s book, simply named Ridley Road Market, was one of the most enjoyable things I read last year. It is the culmination of eight years spent in and around the market, conversing with traders and shoppers, making friends, and of course, taking photographs. Tamara loves the market so much she even became a trader. Over the years she had built up a collection of old photographs of the market. Sometimes these were from the personal archives of traders and shoppers. Others she had found in books, magazines and libraries. From this collection, Tamara created a series of ten postcards and from her stall in the market ‘sold’ them, not for money, but for stories.
The product of this process is a beautifully jumbled-up, multimedia mosaic of Ridley Road. Subtly formatted so that one ‘walks’ through the market (starting from Kingsland Road, of course), the most enjoyable journey is the one through time. Historical photographs of the market are accompanied by stories with so much detail to them you imagine yourself transported back to the 1950s hearing the tales straight from the horse’s mouth. However, despite the strong historical element to the book, contemporary Ridley Road is always present. In the context of the looming threat of redevelopment, the significance of this is clear: Ridley Road is still going strong.
In early March, I met Tamara at her studio overlooking the market where we spoke for nearly two hours about the book, its stories, the market and what is to come. The following text is an abridged and edited transcript of our conversation.
Arman: Ridley Road Market. How would you describe it to someone who has never been?
Tamara: With Ridley Road it really depends when you come here. It can be a very quiet place. The market has struggled a lot recently. On the one hand, business has been slowing down for years. On the other hand you have regeneration - or in the case of Dalston, gentrification - taking place all around the market. People do not seem to know how to respond to these changes. However it is also a very vibrant and busy place. People talking, laughing and smiling at you. You feel everything happening at the same time around you. It is a place you go to and always see new things. There are always interactions and social exchanges taking place.
Arman: Social exchanges are the foundation of your whole project. The idea of setting up your own stall and exchanging the photographs of the market with stories. It is an amazing idea which, six months after first reading the book, still gets me excited. How did the idea come to you?
Tamara: When I first started taking photos as a student I was an old fashioned photographer with a tripod - despite my young age. I was interested in documentary photography but I always found it difficult to be a documentary photographer. I could never capture the moment and I knew it. When I started thinking about this project I decided to try a slower process. I set up a camera and just started chatting to people. I would always ask for permission - even if it wasn’t necessary - just to initiate the conversation. I began to do this frequently in the market over a period of time. When I took pictures of someone I would always come back with the photo and give it to them.
This was all taking place around the time of the Olympics and gentrification was becoming increasingly visible in the neighbourhood. I was very interested in making a book but I was constantly questioning what the consequences of a book could be for the market and the traders. It was during this process that I realised two things about the kind of artist I wanted to be. Firstly, as a photographer, I literally take photos, what can I give in return? Secondly, how can the work I produce go back to where it came from? These were the two questions that I wanted to answer and so I decided to become a trader.
In terms of the idea of selling postcards, it took me a while to figure that out. I had started visiting the Hackney Archives where there is a lot of material on the market. The traders were really interested in these resources but it was difficult for them to access it - despite the archive being only a few minutes away. The archival dimension of the project became increasingly present. I was interested in the notion that there are all these stories locked away and therefore no connection with the people who genuinely treasure them! At the same time, I came across archived postcards of other markets in London - especially around the old East End. There were none on Ridley Road so I began asking people to donate old photos which I could use for postcards. That’s how it all began!
Arman: What do you think it was that made people so interested in this?
Tamara: The community was really curious about the history of the market. I never anticipated the project to have such a strong historical element but it was clear that this was important to the people I was building relationships with. Over the years, Ridley Road has been represented a lot in books, photographs and films. Yet in my research I found nothing that represented the market I had come to learn about from the traders and shoppers. There is one book - I think it’s called Inside the Inner City by Paul Harrison. He wrote books about third world countries and then in the 1980s decided to look at Hackney. The book reads like Oliver Twist. I am not saying the neighbourhood isn't a deprived area - that is definitely not the case - but my point is more around the representations of the market and how this influences the public. There wasn’t a history of the market in the way I was learning about it through conversation and interaction. It was this history that I tried to bring out and I think people responded the way they did because they had essentially told me “this is what we want”.
Arman: These folk, vernacular histories are rarely ever captured. The occasions they are it is never as broad and varied as you have managed. They also rarely spring from as embedded a process you have managed. Yet these are the stories which are incredibly valuable because more often than not, they are the histories that time forgets.
Tamara: It is clear I am in love with the market. When I was working on this project I would often ask myself whether someone else is going to be as interested in it apart from me (laughing). I am interested in the everyday and it is sometimes hard to know if that applies to other people as well. The world is changing fast and we can all feel the changes in the market. We realised that no matter how small these things are they may not be here forever. I am glad I have a natural interest in everyday culture. I enjoy spending time with people - that is what I have done more than anything else on the market. I remember learning about anthropologists going to an area when they realise it is the last chance to document something. When I started this I didn’t feel that was coming anytime soon but now it definitely feels like we are in that moment. In that sense I am glad this book is now finished because there is a real sense amongst everyone that we are going to lose everything we have around us.
Arman: There are so many stories and anecdotes to dive into. However the one which has stuck with me is when we hear about Oswald Mosley and his thugs coming to the market to cause trouble for the Jewish traders. The Caribbean traders, most of whom had recently arrived in the U.K. and were not used to seeing such blatant racism back home, came to the support of their Jewish neighbours and fought back against the thugs. It is the story I reference the most when I encourage people to buy the book. Around the same time I was reading the book I watched the documentary The Street (dir. Jez Nelson) about Hoxton Street and the film regularly references Mosley and his presence in the East End back then. It is a history which does not get regularly discussed and yet is incredibly relevant - especially in the context of our contemporary politics. Reading your book and watching the film got me thinking a lot about the importance of spaces like Ridley Road and Hoxton Street in creating and maintaining the networks of solidarity which are essential for the immigrant experience. Your book celebrates so many of the details and stories which helped develop Ridley Road as one of these spaces.
Tamara: I was aware not to push this side of things too much because I did not want to define people solely by their ethnicity or upbringing. However it was these kinds of stories I was constantly looking for. The market is made up of an incredible mix of communities, religions and cultures . There is a wonderful solidarity between traders and this is what defines working class communities. We help each other. We can’t do it on our own - we need each other. That is a really good basis for society anyway - if we need each other we will make an effort to understand each other. I will keep an eye on your stall, you keep an eye on mine.
Arman: This solidarity - which you definitely show to be the case in the mid-20th century - do you think that is still the case now?
Tamara: Two friends of mine who I met through this project worked as community organisers in the 1980s. In their eyes, communities were much better organised - both culturally and politically - back then. There was more solidarity both within and between groups. I do not know why this fragmentation has taken place but I am wanting to find out. At the moment, I know that because of the threats of development, the traders association has seen membership increase significantly. 90% of traders are now involved in the association which are numbers that have not been seen in a long time. People unite when things get difficult. It was the same when the fascists turned up in the 1960s. One of my favourite stories is when groups from the entire political spectrum - Conservative to Communist - occupied the market for forty-eight hours to stop the Fascists from coming in. I am a big believer in the power of these kinds of things.
Arman: Absolutely. In this context it makes sense why your friend says it was organised in the 80s because they were difficult times too. That was peak Thatcherism. The National Front was all over east London. Hoxton Square was one of the key organising spaces for the National Front! Things have improved a lot since then, at least in this area, but the threat of it returning is never far away.
Tamara: I am hopeful it stays away. I was watching a video that Alan (a key collaborator on the project) gave about the Rio Tape Slides and there was one frame which I loved so much. In the 1980s Hackney groups were supporting Welsh miners during their resistance by sending them food from Hackney. In exchange and as a thank you, the Welsh miners came here and held a parade through Hackney. Around the same time, a local primary school led a protest to stop the deportation of a Turkish family. The kids were born here but they were all eventually deported by the Conservative Government’s ‘hostile environment’. The primary school children were marching the streets! It remains hugely inspiring to see these things.
Arman: This brings me nicely to my next question. How much of this book and the project is rooted in your participation in the Save Ridley Road campaign?
Tamara: The campaign started in late 2018 when I had produced the first draft of the book. I went to the first community meeting and told everyone I am making this book and if you can use it somehow please do. I wanted it to be a resource and a testament to the communities that have existed, and continue to strive, in the market. Since then I have sort-of become the campaign photographer.
Arman: Can you share what is currently being considered by the Council?
Tamara: You have the street market which is owned and operated by the Council and this building we are in now (Ridley Road Studios, 51-63 Ridley Road) which is owned by a private landlord. Both the market and the building are subject to redevelopment. This building is interesting because one department in the Council has given us the status of Asset of Community Value (ACV). Another department will then decide on the planning permission that the developer has submitted. The proposal for the new building doesn’t accommodate the market nor us who are in the building. As a whole, only 10% will remain affordable workspaces and ¼ of the market will be affected by building works if the proposal goes ahead. Office spaces will replace artist studios; retail spaces will be much larger and more expensive. The market traders also use it as a space for storage. The ACV status shows that we have a social and cultural purpose.
In the market, the traders had a very short and confusing period of consultation on new terms and conditions. It is a very long 35-page document with 240 regulations. One trader called it ‘The 101 ways to lose your license’. The Council has a history of prosecuting traders. There is much more detail on the Open Dalston blog. The new conditions put traders into a situation where they can lose their license anytime depending on the market office. At the market office, you have a range of people with a very interesting history of employment. One of them used to be a Met police officer. His background has nothing to do with markets. Another has experience in privatising street markets. It is very worrying.
There is also the £1.5 million that was awarded to the Council by the Greater London Authority’s (GLA) Good Growth fund (The funding allocated £770,000, which was match-funded by the Council). The council has commissioned a design studio to improve the market. As a campaign group, we have been in touch with them and they seem lovely. However my problem lies with the decision to appoint a design studio to improve a market with a very different set of issues. We are dealing with demographic issues, changes in retail, gentrification. I looked at the document they prepared about the public space and they (the design studio) will make good improvements - if they continue to consult traders and shoppers. Yet design - on its own - will not solve these other problems the market is suffering with.
Arman: You will like this story. You know the print I bought from you at Imprint from the book? I went and got it framed properly at my local shop. When I picked it up, I said, of both the picture and the frame, “it looks beautiful’. The guy’s response was “Wow, I have never heard anyone describe Ridley Road as beautiful”. People define beauty in different ways and this is important to remember when we talk about the aesthetics of urban development. For many people, somewhere like Ridley Road with its chaos and disorder, is not how they want the city to look and feel. For me and you, this is beautiful. I love it. It is exactly what I like about coming to Ridley Road - because it is not what London feels like elsewhere. Central London, for example, is so clean and packaged - there is no space for humans to actually be. They are directed to be.
Tamara: There is a DIY mentality that I really like. People will build an extension in their own way. They constantly learn and improve. It is empowerment. I think these things are really important. People lose this in the city of today. It is interesting to see Dalston Square (next door to Dalston Junction station) and to see it has really failed. It could also be called Dalston Void. People continue to be drawn to Ridley Road. There is a reason for that.
Arman: Whether it is consciously part of redevelopment approaches or not, I think cities are fearful of spaces like Ridley Road. They want to control it. Spontaneity is not something they like. They don’t like random interactions, things that they can’t manage, that they can’t own. Whether that is conscious or unconscious, I don't know, but it is a rationale which I believe underpins much of the redevelopment we see around London. Spontaneous interactions and encounters are what make cities special - as your book demonstrates so well. These encounters are what you lose from bad redevelopment agendas.
Arman: In the resistance to the market’s redevelopment, this book provides an incredible foundation to build a campaign from. It is these stories and experiences which should form the basis of an identity moving forward.
Tamara: I am a big fan of Alfredo Jaar and I remember going to a talk of his in London where he said how important research and context is to his practice. It is the same for me. In urban regeneration projects there is often this tension between people with university degrees who think theoretically and others who are experiencing the day-to-day life. Academia gives you the space to research and really think about context. My hope is that Ridley Road’s historical and contemporary context remains central to the redevelopment. In architecture, you have campaigns to list buildings to preserve them. You recognise there is something important to this building and take it into account when thinking about changing it. In the redevelopment of Ridley Road I hope that this appreciation of significant qualities extends to immaterial things. It is these qualities which have made this space so successful because it speaks to the people who use it.
Arman: Yes absolutely. The authenticity - both actual and perceived - of a place should always influence its redevelopment. The issue is always over the agenda of the redevelopment and what is being achieved when the stories and histories of neighbourhoods are co-opted into these agendas? What you would hope is that resources like this book and the stories of the community actually inform the agenda of any redevelopment, rather than just influence its outcomes. When neighbourhoods go through transformative changes, communities always express sorrow about the sense of losing their past. What I find really important about this book was that not only did you put faces to that sentiment, you put detail to that sentiment. Storytelling has always been key to regeneration processes but in recent years developers and local authorities have increasingly turned to capturing stories of local people - often in very creative ways - as a tactic in schemes which ultimately do nothing but harm the same people they are so keen to hear stories from. Yet your project is important because it does not have an agenda. It is not complicit in any regeneration process. I think, over time, it will become an incredibly important resource for people in the struggle to resist negative change.
Buy the book
Learn more about the Save Ridley Road campaign
Learn more about Tamara
Across Borders with Filippo Minelli
14.04.2019 Arman Nouri
In my eyes, Across the Border is the project which captures Filippo best - both as an artist and a person. Meeting people whenever he was travelling, Filippo would ask them to make flags which would link their place to another in the world. Once the flag was made, Filippo would accompany them to a specific site of their choosing and document them waving the flag. Eleven years later, flags and performances have been created in thirty-five countries with all continents covered besides Australia and Antarctica. It is art that puts people and participation front and centre, and in doing so, dissects nationalism, interrogates borders and builds interpersonal relations stitch by stitch.
Manifesta is a biennale that, like Filippo, enjoys moving around. Held every two years in a different location across Europe, its commitment to exploring the peripheries of art, geography and politics gives it a beacon-like stature amongst the hogwash of biennales (spectacles) that swamp the land today. This is exemplified best by their approach to curating the biennale. The organisers commission an architectural practice to undertake a year-long urban study of the host city, with the intention being to identify relevant issues, debates, practitioners and networks. This urban study then forms the foundation from which the curatorial programme springs from. This approach had its first outing in Palermo, and was designed in direct response to the call by the Mayor of Palermo, Leoluca Orlando, for Manifesta to ‘help create instruments for Palermo’s citizens to claim back their own city’. The immediate output of the 2018 urban study is Palermo Atlas, a sprawling, 415-page document which details the processes and findings of the commissioned architects - in this case the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA). There is no point concealing my feelings on this curatorial approach - it is ingenious.
The study, and therefore the biennale, was fascinated by Palermo’s history, in particular its story of migration. The city’s location at the foot of Europe and the heart of the Mediterranean makes it a space traditionally and continually defined by movements of people. Throughout history, Romans, Greeks, Moors and Normans have all called it their own. Today, it is home to significant communities from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Tunisia, Algeria, Somalia and Nigeria. Palermo’s historical and contemporary flows - of humans, data, trade, commerce, knowledge and art - became the defining interest of Manifesta.
The organisers commissioned Filippo to develop Across the Border and situate it within Palermo and the specific histories and geographies which the urban study had so beautifully excavated. This was a relatively easy thing to ask for. The relationship between Manifesta 12, Palermo and Across the Border was clear, concise and beautiful from day dot. You could feel it when you walked into the Palazzo Ajutamicristo and saw the flags hanging from the wooden beams of the six hundred-year old palace. They were in the dozens. Hand-made, beautifully patterned and designed, of all shapes, sizes and intentions. These were the symbols of migration.
Nearly two years on, Filippo and I got together over Skype one evening to firstly catch-up (it had been a while) and secondly, to reflect on the project. The following section is a heavily abridged and edited transcript of our conversation. We talked about participation, politics and process, Filippo’s travels in Central and South America, and what lies ahead for Across the Border in the new decade we have entered.
Arman: Manifesta was two years ago. That’s crazy - it’s flown by. How was the project received during the Biennale and what has happened since?
Filippo: During the Biennale I had a lot of good feedback. A lot of interesting conversations with people who suggested alternative ways of doing the project, ways in which I could scale it up. I received some curatorial proposals - some of them worked out, others didn’t. The project has been shown in a bunch of other places like Trento and Milan in Italy. Austria, too. Right now it is on show at Manifesta’s HQ in Amsterdam. They decided to have an exhibition of some of their favourite works they have produced in the last few editions. I have not been able to develop it as much as I would have liked due to bigger issues than my work but I’m still very happy with how it has gone. I was thinking of reaching out to Manifesta and seeing if we can collaborate more. I want to connect with more people in their network. That was one thing I really enjoyed - connecting with people in their world through the flags.
Arman: Absolutely. For me, the project made so much sense being part of Manifesta. I hadn’t been to anything like that before - both in terms of the programme and the ways in which it engaged with Palermo as a city - and I left very rejuvenated by the experience. It worked perfectly in that crazy city. For all the things that you are interested in, all the things that you deal with in your work, Palermo was the perfect city to host the project.
Arman: The project began over ten years ago with you asking people you met on your travels to make flags. For Manifesta, we took a different approach and directly got in touch with people to make the flags. Do you see yourself continuing down the path of one approach or the other?
Filippo: In the beginning I was sceptical about the approach that Manifesta proposed. It was different to what I had experienced as I wouldn’t be travelling and meeting people. It has some weaknesses in that the variety of people you are likely to be in touch with is not as great as if you are travelling and meeting people yourself. You really need to be proactive to ensure you don’t just work with people from similar backgrounds, with similar interests and professions as yourself. You want to find people who are different to yourself. However when you are travelling and meeting people there are other pressures, like time, as well as the tension that can come about when you, as the artist, are there with the person making the flag. For Manifesta, I enjoyed the distance I had with some of the participants. It meant there was a lot more freedom about the process and the final product, both the flag and the photographs. I was speaking with a German curator and they were saying they like rationality. You know, the same camera, the same point of view, the performer. I actually enjoyed the randomness of the different technologies they used to document the performances. It meant you could see the various technologies available in different countries and how people were using them. I think both approaches are valuable for one reason or another. The project could keep developing in both directions at the same time.
Arman: I completely agree with you on how random and beautifully jumbled the project felt at Manifesta. That was one of the many things which I appreciated about it. Even though it was your baby, your idea, at the same time it felt like you were the least important person in the room (haha!). Everyone was able to do their own thing on it. We were there to facilitate and to help them understand the parameters of it. That was about it.
Filippo: Yes we were there to help them start the process. They can self-replicate, they can be independent, they can sustain themselves beyond the conceptual perspective.
Arman: Exactly. And because of the themes that this project is about, that you, and I, are interested in. The project had to be exactly like that. It would’ve been weird to apply a German rationality to this project. You see it get done a lot - funnily enough I’ve seen it being done with flags - the same frame, the same shot, same typography...and you know...it isn’t as enjoyable.
Filippo: Yes that is how it is with some projects. They force you to be rational. It is often the fault of bureaucracy. Sometimes you just need to say “Hey, fuck off! Trust me.”
Arman: One thing which I have come to appreciate more looking back is that a lot of the people who got involved with the project learnt a new skill out of it. Obviously those who made a flag, if they didn’t know already, learnt how to make a flag which is great in itself. It comes back to what I like about art and creative practice is that it can teach you things. That in my eyes is an important legacy to the project beyond it being shown in this gallery or that museum. Was that ever something you considered when developing the project?
Filippo: Yes I take your point. To be honest I never really considered the value in the technical side of the project. What I did appreciate was encouraging people to look closely at the places they were surrounded by and living in. When you ask someone to connect their ‘place’ to somewhere else in the world, they have to look closely at what is around them and form an opinion of it - if they haven’t done so already. You need to understand what is going on, you need to dig into your identity, into your relationship with that place. Do you feel welcome? Is it your enemy? Immediately the project forces you to develop your relationship with your surroundings. That is what I really like about the project - it elevates the subconscious to the top of your mind and being. It is all about articulating one’s personal experience, their emotions, and how that relates to the landscape and their environment.
Arman: You are asking them to look inwards, into themselves, but it is always in relation to the exterior - whether that is their immediate place, or the location they choose to connect the flag to. I think that’s an incredibly important way of being, of thinking, of feeling.
Arman: What about the project’s relation to politics? Let’s start with international politics. Flags are inherently political of course and the way in which most people know flags is because of the flags of nations. How much was the project about the flag as an object related to nationalism, borders, politics?
FIlippo: It was a big part of it. It was the chosen narrative for the project. I wanted to show how important flags were in the formation of one’s identity, how they were used by people to relate to the surroundings and the world. But this does not mean that every performer used the flags to make political statements. Performers used the flags to communicate their own identity, or the perception of their identity, in relation to the places they were located. As you said, it is about networks, creating networks, relations between the person and the place, the place and the rest of the world.
Arman: It’s funny because since we worked on this together I have definitely seen more projects with flags. Whether that is because I am more aware of them, or because they are being used more regularly, I do not know. The times we are living forces art to become political - which I encourage even in the land of milk and honey - but I find it interesting with flags, because they have important things to say whatever the world is going through. When we were doing this for Manifesta, Trump was already in office, the Brexit vote had taken place two years previously, it was around the same time that migration into Europe spiked dramatically. Borders and walls were constantly in the news. The same would be the case - albeit with a different news story attached - if we jumped back ten years ago and did this.
Filippo: Yes because borders are such a key part of our history. A few decades ago it was understood in relation to the Cold War, then the fall of the Berlin Wall, the consolidation of international capitalism and free trade. They are key to understanding reality.
Arman: There is also the question of technology, that of data, which we definitely talked about at the beginning of the collaboration, but perhaps, and I take responsibility for this, didn’t develop as much as we could have for Manifesta. We were talking about accessing forums, blogs, the dark web, and finding performers in these spaces. That is a hugely interesting way of thinking about this because if we are going to think about the meaning of this project in the future the question of data and technology will become increasingly fundamental to the conversation around borders. When we talk about networks, about people maintaining relationships virtually - and I am not talking about online dating (ha!) but the ways in which technology is manipulating distance and time, and the implications of that for human networks and inter-personal relations. I think if we were to do another iteration of this project, exploring the role of technology, would be a fascinating way to go about it.
Filippo: Yes the role of technology in developing and maintaining these networks is important to consider. The ways in which technology can randomise connections is something that geography can’t do. With technology you can reach much further into the world, and in more diverse ways. I always think about online forums for buying and selling specific things, like cars, or furniture. There are probably many people in the world who use these forums, but don’t have Facebook or Twitter. It would be awesome to get into these sorts of spaces and see what sorts of connections you could form. You can find the random Chinese guy who may be sedentary, lives in a small town or village, doesn’t have much access to the world around him.
Arman: Do you think he would be interested in participating? When we talk about participation, whether in artistic practice or urban development, there is an assumption that everyone should or could participate. Actually I believe that’s not the best way of thinking about it. It is important to be comfortable with the fact that some people do not want to be involved.
Filippo: Yeah completely. I definitely found that with Across the Border. For some people, it was an uncomfortable exercise to think too deeply about their situation, their own identity. Sometimes, it was just laziness. For example, the first flags that I did before Manifesta, the performers there were mostly random people who I met on the street, who I explained the project to, who I tried to convince to take part. Some of them were people who do not think often about their personal identity or about their surroundings. A few took to it very easily. Others needed more time. I think me being there encouraged people to take part. It becomes more difficult in a virtual scenario.
Arman: The reason I was so keen on speaking with you about this was because of my interest in participatory art. I constantly find myself drawn to ideas and projects which encourage people who aren’t ‘artists’ to play a fundamental role in the development of artistic projects. Is this something which you have looked to incorporate in other projects?
Filippo: Yes, to some extent. I am always interested in collaborating with like-minded people, to develop work, facilitate a project, but this is the only project where people have been involved right up-to the final output of the work. It is something which I want to do more of. It’s definitely hugely rewarding for me as an artist to be able to learn how to deal with people. This project has made me more comfortable with changing my own ideas, prejudices and perspectives. It was nice to see how people who resonated exactly with your ideas came up with a concept you do not agree with. That was a very nice part of the learning process for me. Learning to be comfortable with the unexpected; appreciating how people starting from the same common ground can arrive at different solutions.
Arman: For the type of person you are, the work you are interested in, it is a beautiful exercise to develop. If you strip away everything we associate the project with, the galleries it has been shown in, Manifesta, you as an artist, the performers - remove all of that and simplify it. It’s one person travelling and asking people to make flags. It’s an amazing way to travel and to understand places and people.
FIlippo: That was the most enjoyable thing about travelling. You would meet people, go to their homes’ and meet their families. You would spend time with them everyday, often commuting long distances to reach the place of the performance. For example with the flag that was done in Russia, it was one of the last I did with me physically being there. The performer was a woman from Azerbaijan, who lives in St. Petersburg, who had moved to Russia when she was two, three years old. I met her various times alone, or with others, to work on the project. We spent an entire afternoon after she crafted the flag walking around her massive neighbourhood, a suburb in St. Petersburg, getting to know the old part of the neighbourhood that was built in the 70s with some crazy solutions to traffic. Then there is the new part that is being built. It looks like a rendering and there is a really high percentage of Muslim immigrants who live there. You get a focus on people’s lives in a very unique way. That is why I use the term ‘learning’ in relation to the project. In order to realise it, you accidentally learn things that you can never predict before. You don’t know who the person is, how they work, what kind of relationship they want to develop with you. Even with people who didn’t want to take part, those who have a more private approach, they would still tell you about their cultural background, and you would learn about the different ways people reveal themselves. It is a hugely valuable exercise.
Arman: This is something we should do every time we go abroad. This way of travelling and experiencing is very much at the forefront of my mind because of a similar experience I had in Los Angeles recently. It is a cliché to say it is different, and better, to know people in the cities and countries you travel to. However if we move beyond this and think about going to places and actually producing something, working with people to create and give back, rather than just being a tourist who takes - that’s a special and hugely rewarding way of getting about.
FIlippo: Yes I try and operate like this always. It is much more interesting. When you go to places and work like this you don’t even have time to think about the past and all the previous impressions you had of that place. You don’t even have time to think about today. This project allows you to develop new meanings and perspectives. It is nice to be introduced to the perspective of identity from people who are building that identity and not just describing it.
Arman: When you are as embedded as that, you don’t have time to reflect until way after the moment is gone. It’s really valuable to be lost in that moment. Actually that is one of the enjoyable things about talking with you today. Manifesta was nearly two years ago. So much has happened since then. There have probably been days, weeks and months where I haven’t even thought about the memories I have of this experience. I like the influence of distance on memory. I definitely think about the project differently to how I did two years ago. I hope that we can carry it on in the future. I know you are thinking of travelling to Eritrea, back to Columbia...did you get the FARC to make one when you were with them?
Filippo: Yes I did. I also made a flag with this Afro-Caribbean community in the north. They have a very interesting history. They were the first village to be freed of the domination by Spanish imperialism, the conquistadores. It is very much a semi-autonomous area. They have their own police, their own way of solving issues, their own way of judging, their very own music. Of course, all very linked to their relationship with their African ancestry and heritage. That is an experience I am really happy to have had.
Arman: So where next? For both you and Across the Border?
Filippo: When I am travelling I always try and get someone to make a flag. However I would also like to approach the project in a more systematic way. I want to allocate more of my time, certain amounts of time each week and month, to do this properly. It is a project which has huge potential. Every single flag, every single relation in the network, can produce new meanings. It is very exciting.
Arman: Well, if you need help, you know where I am!
If you want to know more about Filippo’s work, head over to his website.
The greenhouse at Grow Tottenham*Image source: hirespace.com/Spaces/London/178271/GROW-Tottenham/Garden-dancefloor/Film-and-Photo
On this particular afternoon, with the sun in full force and all three spaces open and alive, it is strange to think of the fact that soon they will all be gone. In fact, all of the buildings on this road will be gone; emptied and demolished to make way for a mixed-use development promising eight hundred homes and a brand new, state-funded digital skills college. The Ashley Road South development, as its named in official documents, is just one piece of the massive redevelopment puzzle currently enveloping Tottenham Hale. In the aftermath of the 2011 London riots which had their genesis in Tottenham, Haringey Council began plans to transform the area with the creation of 5,000 new homes and 4,000 jobs centred around the existing Tottenham Hale tube station. Hale Village, to the east of the station and one of the plan’s first developments, has already been completed. Ashley Road awaits next.
Located in an ex-mechanics depot, Grow is a meanwhile-use community garden and club in Tottenham Hale. After initially being drawn to it because of this unique mix of uses, my own relationship with the space began after throwing a party there. Houseplants, the name of the party which I have been running with friends for the past two years, usually takes place away from traditional club spaces; railway arches, high street shops and photography studios have all hosted our parties in recent times. In this sense,prides itself on finding unique and alternative spaces; those which are both physically and symbolically different from traditional club spaces. Grow Tottenham fitted the bill perfectly. At the same time, I was beginning to seriously consider ideas for this dissertation.a Masters dissertation. I knew what I was interested in: grassroots, community-led cultural initiatives in a city being brutally configured by and for capital. Yet I could not articulate my desired approach. It was only really in June, after filling a dingy, low-ceilinged dance-floor with plants, strobes and two-hundred friends and strangers, that it became clear. Grow Tottenham fitted the bill perfectly.
Map. of the Grow Tottenham sight produced by Beep Studio
*Image source: www.beepstudio.co.uk/news/2018/3/26/grow-tottenham-launches
“After it became clear that the demolition was happening”, Paul says, “the campaign moved on to being about stopping them from cutting all the trees down, getting them to build more social housing, getting them to improve the design of what they were building. Basically getting a better deal for local people who were still living in the area”.
After the campaign put forward a series of specific demands to Southwark Council focused on returning some of the land back to them, the authorities agreed to give them space for a community garden. Initially however the project didn’t take shape in the intended way as a lack of resources and funding took its toll. Shortly after they moved into the original site there was a transfer of land ownership away from Southwark Council and towards the Australian multinational developers Lendlease. At this point it became clear that Lendlease were not interested in honouring the commitment to the garden. This coincided with increased public interest in the Heygate ‘scandal’ – as Paul refers to it as – and with the developers wary of stoking more controversy, the organisation was able to lay roots at its biggest and most-known location on the site’s eastern periphery at New Kent Road.
Grow Elephant opened to the public in the summer of 2016, with a fully-functioning bar, café and event space hosting talks, film screenings and live music throughout the week. The bar, café and event space were key components as they allowed the project to generate revenue which the organisation could use to pay for staff as well as save for future projects. Yet almost as soon as this site had begun to attract a name for itself, Lendlease served eviction notices, forcing Paul and the garden to vacate within the year.
Tropics Cafe at Grow Elephant
*Image source: www.weekender.co.uk/business/tropics/
“I think the idea of combining a space where people can have a party and a garden is a nice idea. I think a lot of clubs are boring environments and one- dimensional. There is no reason there shouldn't be more variety and spaces you could have a party in”.
It is perhaps important to note that Grow London, the site’s operating company, was not set up to bridge the gap between partying and gardening. It was set up as a particular response to a set of issues, namely rising land scarcity, declining availability of outdoor space, as well as a perceived sense of alienation between urban inner-city communities and the natural and social environments they inhabit.
Posters from various club nights and music events that have taken place at Grow Tottenham
*Image source: www.residentadvisor.net
For Paul, community gardens are the perfect response to such issues. “I think having a shared garden works really well as a facility for people. If you take a space and grow your own stuff here and start to hang out you do become quite comfortable here. People become quite comfortable in the space and see it as their space and become quite comfortable socialising in it. Then it fulfils the role that a private garden will do and all the same things. It's as much social as it is functional”.
In recent decades, community gardening has proliferated in urban areas. With roots in US urban social movements of the late nineteenth-century, community gardens have long been used to address urban issues such as land scarcity, overcrowding and lack of state investment in infrastructure. In Tottenham, the situation is no different. There is a clear awareness that such open spaces are vital in overcrowded areas , inner cities where residents often do not have outdoor space of their own. Moreover, there is an understanding that community gardens such as Grow Tottenham offer vital social and health benefits to the local communities around them. Izzy, a gardening instructor who works at Grow teaching local school groups, is clear about the benefits that a community garden brings to areas.
“Anywhere a community garden pops up the community is enriched by it. I have seen a lot of community gardens that people benefit from. A lot of people who come there struggle with mental health difficulties, or they do a lot of work with young people who aren’t in school for whatever reason, and it sorts them out.”
In this light, a community garden such as Grow is about more than just growing food. As Izzy reiterates
“Everyone enjoys the garden but there is no pressure to be a gardener”.
“With Grow, I feel like it’s been built and it asks people to come and do what they want with it. It’s a free space for you to use in whichever way you wish. There could be a party on a Saturday then I will work during the week and I can come see Izzy teach the kids about gardening. It’s great to see so many different things happening in one space”
The indeterminacy of the space clearly strikes a chord with Ruth, Izzy and the host of others I speak with during my time there. As a result, I began to think of Grow as a ‘loose space’, taking the cue of urban sociologists Quentin Stevens & Karen Franck. Their book of the same name explores how citizens around the world appropriate and adapt physical space to their own taste and making. In their eyes, ‘loose space’, is a vital tactic for individuals and communities seeking freedom and possibility within the confines of an increasingly homogenised and controlled urban environment. In their own words, ‘the indeterminacy of loose space, along with free access, opens the space to other possibilities: to activities not anticipated, to activities that have no other place, to activities that benefit from a relative lack of control and economic constraints’. Understanding Grow along these lines allows us to recast it as more than just a multi-creative space, but instead as a radical space of possibility and potential.
Setting up for an impromptu workshop in DJing
Grow fits neatly into discussions of ‘loose space’. Yet if we are to situate the space in a broader context – the city – and explore the implications of Grow for wider debates – grassroots creativity in the city – there is another term we can also draw on. A year after Stevens and Franck set out their discussions of ‘loose space’, a book was published which put forward a similar, perhaps more radical concept: micro-utopias. Defined as ‘temporary manifestations of an ideal civic culture’, the premise of micro-utopias is that through small-scale experimentation it is possible to ignite new modes of thinking and being which challenge conventional wisdom about the way in which systems – be it capitalism, society or institutions – are run. By shifting the realms of possibility, it is therefore conceivable to disrupt, destroy or develop these systems for the better. The term has strong roots in participatory art, discussions of the commons and the writings of Buckminster Fuller. Fundamental to micro-utopias is that they need to be bottom-up and small-scale with participation at their core. Wood uses the term as an umbrella for an array of ‘interventions’; micro-libraries, community gardens and digital platforms for collaborative political decision-making are all cited as examples of micro-utopias in action.
The reason I like the term is that it is inherently forward-facing. Micro-utopias, whilst rooted in today, are mainly about tomorrow. As the blog entry on micro-utopias in Participedia states, ‘the theory of change behind micro-utopias is that if we offer a tangible glimpse or experience of a more desirable future, then people will be more likely to believe that such a future is possible and potentially participate in manifesting it’. If we apply this idea to Grow we can begin to see it as a model for how other meanwhile creative spaces could organised and operated. The other key point about micro-utopias is that their power lies in numbers. Whilst classical utopianism proposed one single monolithic entity, Wood argues that change can only be arrived at through a network of multiple micro-utopias.
Following from this, there are other micro-utopias in London we should talk about. DIY Space for London (DIYSFL) in South Bermondsey is certainly one of them. Operating from a warehouse a stone’s throw from Millwall and Old Kent Road, the cooperatively run social centre offers an inspiringly diverse, inclusive and radical programme spanning music, film, art, dance, performance, literature and more. Originally based in east London, they managed to secure their current site through a lengthy crowdfunding and volunteering campaign. As an example of a truly democratic, grassroots cultural space, You will find it hard to find a space in London with as much passion and ambition behind it as DIYSFL. Back over the river and closer to Grow we also have Total Refreshment Centre, or to its family and friends, TRC. Housed in a building which over the past century has been a chocolate factory, a gearbox factory and a social centre for the thriving local Jamaican community, more recent years has seen the space grow into a vital incubator for many of London’s emerging musical talents. Currently consisting of recording facilities, studios and event spaces, the space was also home to a club and live music venue until last year. Similarly to Grow and DIYSFL, it is a space where possibility, potential and participation is embedded into the bricks and mortar.
There are other similarities too: all three venues exist in former industrial buildings and play host to a wide variety of creative practices. Moreover, they are spaces which at their core have a community enriched by inclusivity and accessibility. To participate in these spaces is to become part of that community. There are no consumers within these walls, no passive recipients of culture, fun and entertainment. These spaces are made up of exactly the people who spend time there, making music, creating art, dancing, eating, singing, meeting friends, families and strangers. These spaces are ‘loose spaces’ are vital for contemporary London because they afford communities the opportunity to experience art, culture and education in environments characterised by freedom and possibility; where economic obstacles do not stand in the way of creative expression and passionate pursuits. Yet with Grow Tottenham closing down in June, TRC operating in a reduced capacity since its clubbing heydays and DIYSFL in a seemingly perpetual battle for survival, it is clear these spaces are sensitive, both to time and the hard pressures of the built environment around them.
The sites which Grow and its neighbours, The Cause, currently occupy are being managed as meanwhile spaces by The Mill Co. Project - a social enterprise who work closely with councils and developers in identifying sites awaiting development before managing and leasing them as ‘meanwhile spaces’ to largely arts-based organisations and individuals. When I speak with Nick Hartwright, founder and CEO of The Mill Co. Project, he is full of praise for Paul and the project, clearly delighted that he is able to offer his meanwhile spaces to initiatives such as Grow. Yet there is also a frank admission that in a wider sense, the strategy (or lack thereof) around meanwhile spaces is suffering from huge deficiencies.
“A lot of people are trying to use meanwhile spaces either as a sort of place-making strategy or a reducing liability strategy. I don’t think anybody really is truly looking at it as part of the process. It’s always a little bolt on. They (developers, local authorities) don’t really understand the long-term value of it”, Nick says.
As a result of this short-sightedness, all parties involved are seen to lose out.
Nick continues, “you have people like Paul (Grow) who is trying to deliver a good project but he’s hamstrung because he hasn’t got the money to do it. People like the site owners aren’t benefiting as much as they could do because it does look too DIY, too shabby and it doesn’t get the proper engagement. The planners and the local authorities don’t get what they want out of it at the end of the day which is local people and communities brought along the journey rather than pushed aside by the regeneration wagon”.
Paul McGann and Stuart Glen in the empty lot right at the start of the project
*Image Source: www.haringey.gov.uk/news/studios-will-grow-you
The history of meanwhile space in the UK and the contemporary policy around it supports Nick’s suggestion. Since the financial crash of 2008 and the subsequent decade of austerity-era politics, meanwhile spaces have become increasingly widespread. In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash, Gordon Brown, then Prime Minister, implored people to temporarily transform vacant lots into innovative spaces for the community.
Whilst initially meanwhile spaces were understood as a response to increasing vacancy rates on British high streets, in recent years their presence and diversity has proliferated. In 2019, meanwhile space is both Boxpark - according to the founders “the world’s first pop-up shopping centre” - as it is Grow Tottenham. The basic premise is that meanwhile spaces, by prohibiting urban dereliction, providing affordable space for local businesses and individuals and ensuring greater revenues for the local economy, can help secure longer-term investment and interest in the given area. This particular understanding of meanwhile spaces positions them explicitly as a place-making initiative, especially in areas which are seen to need regenerating. Implictly, meanwhile spaces are seen only to provide short-term benefits given the fact that they are by definition finite. Critiques of meanwhile space often hone in on its use within placemaking strategies, with temporary, finite uses of space regularly advocated by urban planners and developers for their perceived role in leveraging the economic and social potential of a given area.
Paul, of course, is fully aware of the attitude to meanwhile spaces shared by developers and local authorities. When I ask him what he thinks of the fact that in just over a year Grow Tottenham will be gone (at least in its current iteration), he expresses equal parts remorse equal parts appreciation. He is honest enough to know that the transience of the site is the reason why he is here in the first place. Yet as the conversation proceeds this quiet sense of fortitude transforms into a tirade of grievances, aimed especially at the developers, whom Paul is worried will evict the project before the agreed end-date.
“They love offering us space and then as soon as there is a conflict between the needs of the development team and us, when we become an obstacle...the decision is always determined what will generate most income”, he laments.
Paul is articulating a clear and unavoidable tension at the heart of Grow as a meanwhile space. To what extent will the space’s artistic and social potential be allowed to flourish in the face of impending commercial gains? In other words, how long will Grow be allowed to stay when for the developers a significant amount of money arises from its departure? This is the question that hits at the crux of the matter. Whilst the contract with the developers Notting Hill allows Grow to stay on-site until January 2020, it also permits them to serve 30-day eviction notices at any point. This is what happened to Grow Elephant and there is no reason it can’t happen here.
This tension appears to be an endemic quality of meanwhile spaces: they are constantly in crisis as key stakeholders conflict over their actual use value as publicly accessible spaces for social, artistic and cultural experimentation, and their potential commercial value. At Grow there is a clear understanding that this tension is an unavoidable consequence of the situation they find themselves in. As Paul, tongue-in-cheek, exclaims.
“That’s how the world works!”.
The current approach to meanwhile spaces, as articulated by the London Plan, which positions them primarily as a place-making initiative, needs an overhaul. An improved approach would rest on two key pillars: first, there needs to be an explicit and expansive recognition of the root causes at the heart of the current dearth of permanent space for grassroots creative organisations; second, aplan for the use and development of meanwhile space must be formulated so we move beyond them being beautification tools in supposedly ‘derelict’ urban areas and instead see them as powerful opportunities for independent and bottom-up creativity to gain prominence in today and tomorrow’s urban landscape. A thorough and articulate exploration of what such a plan could look like is offered by Akil Scafe-Smith here. The key takeaway for me is that structured and meaningful community participation is fundamental. When this does not happen’, as Akil Scafe-Smith writes, ‘it can leave communities feeling disenfranchised and forgotten’.
Prior to writing and researching, I had a particularly negative view of meanwhile spaces and how they are currently being used within the capital’s cultural landscape. I saw them as facades for wider, systemic problems in the urban fabric, namely the lack of affordable, permanent space for cultural organisations, particularly those of which are committed to vernacular creativity as understood in this paper. In a city being brutally configured by and for capital, meanwhile space appeared to me as its colourful, huggable toy. ‘There’s no problem here – squeeze (occupy) me’.
Whilst a summer spent at Grow has not completely dispelled this notion, there has been a transformation in my attitude towards meanwhile space, a process which I have sought to articulate in this article. Previously, I was interested in how organisations such as Grow could get permanent space. This interest has now shifted towards exploring how meanwhile space can be better suited to meet the needs and aspirations of organisations such as Grow and the communities they serve. If one thing is clear, it is that the current situation is unsustainable. However, whilst meanwhile spaces are certainly not perfect, I strongly believe that they have the potential to be a highly valuable and viable way for independent, grassroots cultural organisations to obtain space and visibility in today’s climate.
Perhaps it is Grow itself which has been key in shifting my thoughts. Its refreshing commitment to grassroots creativity and community participation is highly significant. In contemporary London, the past three decades have seen culture and art become key instruments for urban planners and economic gurus. In this context, Grow is a micro-utopia which challenges post-industrialist conceptions of art, culture and education as vessels for a higher purpose, whether that is economic growth, urban renewal or reducing inequality.
It should be reiterated that this was not the intention of Paul and the rest of the team when they set up in N17, or in SE1 prior to that. Grow is a highly innovative solution to a combination of very real and damaging urban problems. By creating a shared, community space in a time where land is rising in price and declining in availability, where clubs and live music venues are shutting down at an alarming rate, where artist studios are getting more and more expensive, Grow Tottenham is first and foremost a functional and necessary space for London.
Yet it is so much more than that. Grow Tottenham is spiritual; it is free. It understands culture and creativity. It understands that they are ordinary, everyday forces. It understands that creativity is not an extraordinary capacity found only within particular subsects of society. It is not something which should be accessed only by those with a certain degree of economic, social and cultural capital. It is here where Grow’s utopia resides. In our brave new world, creativity is a resource in abundance, not exclusivity.
As Grow Tottenham shows, there is the potential for everyday creativity to thrive in meanwhile space. In the age of the creative city, there is an urgent need to support grassroots, community-driven culture; to build and support community-run cultural spaces; to enhance community and sociality through creativity. It is our belief that only then will we - as individuals, as communities, as a city - be able to grow.
Second image: Paul McGann and a volounter in the same lot further into the Grow Tottenham project
*Image source: hirespace.com/Spaces/London/178271/GROW-Tottenham/Garden-dancefloor/Film-and-Photo
Special thanks to Paul McGann, the Grow Tottenham family, Akil Scafe-Smith and Andrew Harris.
This article was repurposed from an MSc dissertation written in June 2018. If you would like to read the full dissertation, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org