This is the transcript of a discussion with Laura Oldfield Ford, artist, publisher of Savage Messiah and citizen of Dalston, London. It took place during an 11 mile walk around the Olympics Site undertaken in early 2009, around the time of her rapturously received exhibition at the Hales Gallery which brought together in stark, visual form, the concerns a whole generation of ne’er-do-wells have been expressing about their beloved London.
How do you make the zines?
I would use acrylic, felt tip, biro to draw. I would often photocopy it on to A4 and then make a montage. There are always some places in there that I have a pre-existing emotional engagement with. Somewhere I have known for several years, I will go back there, take a camera and make a few notes and do a series of drawings. I never do drawings on site. I might make a few little sketches, I take photographs and notes and then make a series of drawings based on that. It’s also contextualised by a wider research. There’s always some kind of social political tension that I’m trying to tap into.
Tell me about your use of montage.
I’ve borrowed it from comics. When you walk around areas like this, you see things like a picture of Paris Hilton on the hoarding on the Blackwall approach road. It seems so incongruous, they seem to loom up, and they’re actually placed into this context where you can appreciate the meaninglessness of the message the advertising executive is trying to convey. It shows it up. It’s a jarring montage effect itself so that’s why I brought. The montage is already there. They appear naturally in this environment.
Why do you like the Lea Valley area so much?
I’m interested in the Ballardian notion of when nature creeps back in to claim this territory which is why I’ve always been drawn to Hackney Marshes, in a way these post-industrial ruins are being reclaimed by buddleia and convulvias and ivy. And one of the things that I was trying to talk about in my show was that to me the Olympic spectacle only becomes interesting when you imagine it laid to waste.
That’s the mistake these planners make – they think they can impose a whole masterplan on to a huge area. It’s quite a violent gesture, to think they can come in and create a myth that this area was empty before. Just ignoring the face that it was being used in many ways before. To impose a masterplan seems really wrong-headed. It’s about trying to impose order, control and surveillance on the one place in London, which was more experiential, transient, confused. Lots of different communities were coming together and subverting the city in a really interesting way. I find it problematic, the notion of a masterplan.
Why have you included an image of the Habitat building in Montreal in this zine?
Even though its brutalist because it’s well maintained. I’ve had to make it scruffier to make it look more London. Acrylic and oil on canvas. Took a photograph of it and photocopy. That’s the good thing about the zine; it allows all the different aspects of my practice to be filtered through this one media.
Do you re-use images that you have put to one side?
Yes. Sometimes I’ll make work and I’ll think it’s been a waste of time and I’ll leave it for sometime as long as 3 years and then it does work. I’ll make work about a certain place and then suddenly that place is gone and the work has a different resonance. Then there’s a sense of melancholy imbued into it.
When do you write?
If I were out walking I’d stop for a cup of tea and when I get back home I’d write quite a lot. Almost in a diary-like way. Quite prosaic. I write all the time, so I don’t have to set it aside as a different task. It’s something I’ve always done. I’ve made zines on and off and contributed to other peoples. I’ve been politically engaged for some time. Living in squats and becoming involved in various campaigns. I’ve always been in that milieu of the DIY punk aesthetic, putting on your own events, forming bands, quite a creative milieu.
Tell me about the issue of Savage Messiah that was created around Heathrow.
I always think airports are interesting spaces. Not just because they are liminal spaces but also because they are areas where new technologies are tried out. It’s where you can get an unpleasant glimpse into the future. It’s where they are testing out the iris recognition technology. At the new terminal building in Heathrow. It’s quite scary.
It was done in one day walking round Heathrow. I’d never really walked around that area. My only experience had been getting in and going out. I usually pick areas that I have an emotional attachment to but Heathrow was very different. That’s why aesthetically it looks different. How it’s glimpsed. I actually found myself drawn to Hounslow and some Polish pubs there…
Do you work towards exhibitions or specific issues of Savage Messiah?
I’m producing work all the time. I think it’s very important that the works exists outside the gallery. I’m very interested in London’s social history and political history. Social struggle and political upheaval. I think we are approaching a very similar period now. We haven’t had that civil unrest and industrial action. In 73-74 there was a huge stock market collapse and a recession. The scene is set for a whole decade of unrest. That’s the previous recession. And the one we’re going into is going to be more severe than any of the ones we’ve known recently.
What is happening to the artistic community in this area?
A lot of studios down here are run by Space – a sort of charity which have a lot of these building although they are getting pushed out. Developers look at these big windows and high ceilings and they want them. The rents go up and up and Space feel they can’t pass them on. They’re now developing spaces out in Dagenham.
I attended a conference called Legacy Now that was attended by the ODA and Hackney council people. We were saying to them, ‘if you want to say that the artists are forerunners of gentrification. If you want to use us as pilots, it’s a bit of a cheek to oust us from places where we’ve formed communities, friends, families, schools, children, out to somewhere like Edmonton.’ If they were to say, we’ll give you free studios for a year that would be different. But they’re not.
What do you think of the Olympics?
It’s a corporate land grab. It’s a disgrace. They tell everyone in the East End that they are unhealthy and they are putting on 2 weeks of televised sport sponsored by fast food outlets. MacDonald’s are sponsoring it. If they talk about the health of the nation, I’m not having it.
What would you say to the planners of the Games if they would listen?
You can’t impose a masterplan from above. Changes have to happen in a more organic way. The displacement of people and this huge attempt of an erasure of existing history is impossible. It can’t happen. Even though attempts are made to pretend there is no history that can never happen. The past will always assert itself. There will be semiotic ghosts.
This notion of public art is interesting. They often use terms like democracy and inclusivity when they are talking about these huge plans but it’s interesting what they mean when they say that. They are talking about a certain public. They are not talking about political activists. They are not talking about the homeless or street drinkers or the free party rave scene. They are talking about a very specific public. They want people with money to come into the area. As a term public art is meaningless. What I think would be better would be to have cultural facilities for people who live in the area. But then much of this is an attempt to push poor people out of the area.
A lot of people accuse me of having a sentimental attachment to this area, but if all this building was for social housing, I would not lament the loss of the marshes. I would wave them goodbye, but the fact that it’s all being spent on private initiatives to build private homes, it’s not acceptable.
The banking crisis is making people more aware of what a private finance initiative really is. The public supports an industry, which generates massive profit for itself. Private companies don’t suffer from the downside of capitalism. I wouldn’t mind if we shared in the dividends, but I don’t see why we have to share the losses.
Do you feel a sense of urgency?
I do. I feel I’m chronicling a time of drastically changing landscape that I feel is important to document.
What do you think of the building site?
I’m amazed how this transient city has emerged. I think its amazing how you get these temporary configurations of massive structures that are almost on the scale of a small city or a town itself. That’s more interesting in many ways, than the plans for the finished structure themselves.
How do you see things going after the event?
I think that after the event, when the buildings are abandoned because nothing in the city is static that these buildings will adapt through people’s subversive use of them. As the crisis deepens and more people become unemployed and are forced out of their homes through repossessions, I can imagine attempts being made to squat these buildings. Say for example these new-builds that are abandoned in construction, you can imagine them being patched up by tarpaulin and caravans and traveller sites. To me that’s interesting, when cities evolve outside the masterplan.
In 2013 it will be depopulated. The paradigm of animation in August 2012. And then after that it will be empty, eerie. Who is going to use it?
Do you think architects and planners care about the life after that short period of time?
How have you noticed it changing most recently?
I’ve noticed a sense of urgency. I used to walk along here and nothing fundamentally would change. In a sense it was a place where you could escape the pace of the city and return to something more elemental, you’d feel the weather more, you’d see the seasons change. You’d get in touch with a natural environment, things would change slowly, but then suddenly bang. But then as an artist and someone who cares about the city, deeply, you do feel this compulsion to start recording things in a much more meaningful way. And there is definitely a sense of urgency.
Tell me about some of the walks you have organised.
One time I drew random roots on old maps and urged people to follow it, people kept coming up against new developments, security guards, it really made people realise how public thoroughfares have been shut off. Because of the blue fence we won’t be able to traverse the old street pattern, but it will still be interesting for people to look across and imagine what was there before. You forget so quickly.
The vision for this new shopping centre [Westfield in Stratford] the way they set it out, it’s like a horror movie, or a dystopian science fiction. Where there are all nice young blonde children with their faces tilted towards the sun, walking along past ‘The Cascades’ which are these waterfalls. I don’t think this future, which they’ve set out, belongs to us. Newham is one of the most diverse areas in the country. They say they are going to bring diversity and excitement to a place, which to me already has that. What they’re trying to import is a boring white middle-class monoculture.
Look at the planner’s heavy-handed attempts to incorporate history into their work. What do you get? Public art.
What do you think of the Olympics attempts to ban Iain Sinclar?
Hackney Council gave Sinclair such a gift by banning that launch. They might as well have worked for his PR company. Everyone’s got it now, everyone’s reading it, they wouldn’t have bothered without the clumsy attempt to ban it. It just shows though the absurd extremes the council will go to quash any dissent. If that had been allowed to happen there’d have been a few people, without ceremony and his usual fans would’ve bought it – few Guardian readers down Broadway market or whatever. It goes to show you, if they can’t accept any critique of what’s going on, it makes it so sinister and alienates even more people.
What do you think is going to happen to the area?
Notting Hill used to be very bohemian full of writers and artists and so on and they moved across to Camden and Islington and then the 80s they were pushed across to Hackney. Shoreditch became popular and it now it’s become popular and artists are just being pushed further and further east. People who are working as cultural workers. There are a lot of people around here that are going to respond in a critical way.
And also the area has been a hotbed of radicalism. Whitechapel had the Jewish radical and anarchists there. And Hackney has already had its fair share; there is a sense that there is a resistance seething under the surface. In this situation resistance is shut down quickly. There is a determination that everyone is really happy with it. It will be interesting as the effects of the downturn are felt what will happen. Whether that will shift attitudes towards the Olympics or not should be interesting.
If this was being done for social housing that would feel right, because at this juncture that is what is needed. But the fact that it is for more flats for middle class people from outside the area, it is a travesty. There does seem to be something obscene about that. I think once the anger about bale outs in the banking industry becomes more focused then that will spread to a wider discontent with the Olympics and what it stands for.
I hope it becomes more focused. It doesn’t respond to the genuine needs of people that live in the East End. There are a lot of empty promises being made. They talk about increasing the jobs here but there’s a paucity of ambition for peoples round here. You might get a job in the service industries or in MacDonald’s. How many of them are going to be Olympic athletes?
What do you think of the word ‘legacy’?
The legacy is going to be Westfield Shopping Centre. That’s not what this area needs. People are living in cramped conditions. TB is making a comeback. What people need is good decent social housing. That’s where you start and everything radiates out from there, but whilst you have people housed in appalling conditions. There are some terrible estates around Newham and Tower Hamlets.
Where did the idea for the walks come from?
I’ve built up a following with the zine, and I’ve always done events alongside the launch of it. So I’ve built up quite a following. I guess it’s quite relevant to now. Drawing is very quick. With an oil painting it would take me 3 months to complete a large-scale painting. With the drawing I was completing one a day. So it was very much a documenting process. It was very immediate. Drawing is the most immediate thing really. And allows you to respond to a global political situation. The actual way the work was made fitted with the objective of it. I do feel that the work is very current. Also with the zine, I’ve been talking about the economic crisis and the polarisation of politics. There is a debate taking place around urban space. I’ve been talking about that for a while. People want to hear that now. People are sick of work that is purely decorative. Hirsts diamond encrusted skull was the grim apotheosis of that. And I think now people are sick of it so…
In your show at the Hales Gallery you hung everything on one wall.
Paul the director had the idea. He said, ‘Lets get them all up one wall. Paint a wall grey and get them all up.’ I wasn’t sure. But I trusted him because he knows what he’s doing. And when he did it, I thought wow that is brilliant. It gave you a real sense of it being a sprawling narrative. It becomes almost like a subjective mapping project, which you feel, could go on. It’s almost arbitrary that it stops there.
It also had a link directly to the zine. As a viewer, because of the bombardment of information, it was very much up to you how you went through it, which is also like the drift through the city. There isn’t a linear narrative from left to right; it’s very much about your responses.
You use devices from cartoon’s inserts and panels…
I like that device when you suddenly have another image there. It was a way I found to articulate those moments in the street when the unexpected just suddenly happens. You can be walking around in a dream world of your own making, and suddenly a figure from the past will loom up at you. And also those crazy juxtapositions that we were talking about before which is all the drama of the street, with the large scale paintings they were too static to be able to convey that. There’s more of a reference to film rather than painting. You can move round it and construct your own narrative. There’s a restless in me now than means I don’t really like spending 3 months on one image.
How far do you normally walk?
I could walk another ten miles now. About 10 or 11 miles is about the limit of my walks, my ideal length.
Where are we?
This road must’ve been here before judging by the condition of the paving, but I just can’t remember what it was like. You learn to navigate the terrain, and then suddenly it all changes. I think this main road we’re coming up to links up with the Eastway. That’s Leyton Mills were TX Maxx and Asda are. It looks like one of my paintings already. Now I’ve put the show up its good to get out and look at more source material. It’s impossible to tell whether roads that have been put in have just been put in for the construction period or whether they will exist forever. It’s such a huge site, they need their own temporary infrastructure to ferry workers around.
Have you heard about the Trowbridge estate? It was huge estate of point blocks. They were all here along the canal. When people thought of Hackney social housing they thought of this but it was knocked down. One of the projects I’m doing at the moment is the lost estates of London. I post images of the old estates around the new ones – these horrible retro-vernacular jumbles – just to put the fear of god into people. So they think they’re coming back or that they never really went away. The remnant of the tower block is haunting the alleyways.