Found Art (or the delights of negative entropy)

cream on cream

Cream on cream. Multiple layers of slightly mismatched paint covering graffiti on this wall produce an effect that reminds me of the visual experimentation of early 20th century artists like Kazimir Malevich or Ben Nicholson*.

A sophisticated awareness of graffiti is now part of the essential intellectual armoury of any East London resident or visitor with pretentions to hipness or gentility. Tourists take guided tours of the street art of Shoreditch, Islington home-owners trying to sell their £1 million houses proudly point out the Banksy at the end of the road to their potential buyers and no art bookshop is complete without a table of expensive glossy books on street art (some, rubbing in the irony, with names like ‘The Art of Rebellion’). There is even an iphone app called ‘Street Art London’, celebrating the work of the likes of (pseudonymous yet would-be famous) Phlegm and ROA.

found Frank Stella

A found ‘Frank Stella’*

Conferring this formal status as ‘art’ onto something that used to be regarded (by society at large) as nuisance and vandalism and (by a minority of intellectuals) as a transgressive form of Art Brut creates troubling contradictions both at the aesthetic and the social level.

At the aesthetic level, the self-conscious artistry of a Banksy or Phlegm deprives us as viewers of our ability, in the tradition of Marcel Duchamp or Jean Dubuffet or  Kurt Schwitters, to become an artist ourselves by being the person who ‘sees’ the art in our environment. Their graffiti are defiantly presented to us as ‘already’ art and we are put immediately onto the back foot, with the choice of passively enjoying it, thus constituting ourselves as fans of the artist, thereby conferring status on him or her, or of being cast as killjoy philistines. Either way we lose that intellectual superiority that comes from asserting the dominance of our own vision that goes along with the identity of artist.

a found Mark Rothko

A found ‘Mark Rothko’*

At the social level, the public authorities or property owners who are keepers of the urban landscape are faced with the practical dilemma of defining what is, or is not, public art in their daily decisions about what to leave untouched and what to paint over. This gives them an unacknowledged role as arbiters of taste.

Another found ‘Rothko’*

The results of their paintings over have become a great source of visual pleasure to me. there is a cream-painted wall opposite my house that is frequently graffitied on and, just as frequently painted over by Council workmen. Each time they do so, another rectangle of slightly differently coloured cream paint is layered over what already exists creating a subtle patchwork of cream-on-cream that I love. It reminds me of early 20th century experiments in abstraction.

Also near my house is a derelict pub one of whose walls is overlaid with similarly overlapping layers of shades of red and pink. I think of it as a wall of  Rothko paintings, though the other side of the building is more reminiscent of Jasper Johns or Frank Stella.

found Jasper John

A found ‘Jasper Johns’

I am of course seeing them through modernist-trained 20th century eyes. But no eye is innocent. Sometimes I wonder about the vision of those Council workmen whose job it is to go round implementing the zero-tolerance-of-antisocial-behaviour-including-graffiti policy. For all I know, some of them could themselves  have spent teenage evenings with a spray can leaving their personal mark on the drab neighbourhoods they grew up in. Or some might be spare-time artists in a more socially recognised sense. Or might some even be doing the work as Community Service, enforced punishment for past crimes, perhaps even seeing what they have to do as a brutal desecration of forms of cultural expression that they identify with and cherish? Or could this repeated repainting be work done, not under the Council’s jurisdiction at all but by some artist-squatter?

another detail from the rothko wall

Another detail from the ‘Rothko wall’*


Most jobs, of course, involve some sort of pride in the craft being exercised (I have written about this here) and I am sure that any conscientious worker with a paint roller in hand must be exercising some sort of judgement about how the paint is applied, perhaps even with some sense of leaving an individual stamp on the finished work. I wish I knew more about the labour process of these workers. Is the defiant patch of grey on my local Rothko wall (pictured here) the result of a conscious aesthetic decision, perhaps? Or had they simply run out of reddish paint that day and abandoned the attempt at a colour match?

Rothko wall

An artefact created in a complex interaction between weather, plant life, neglect and human intervention both sanctioned and unsanctioned*

Whatever the intention, my pleasure as a viewer is tempered with a certain unease. Haunting each such wall is its complex history: the pristine wall, the graffitied wall, and the overpainted wall, with perhaps many intevening layers of deterioriation, repair, alteration and restoration. Each of these might provoke a different aesthetic response: admiration, regret, celebration, aversion. In taking a picture of such a wall, am I responding to it as intended art (like a tourist taking a photo of the Taj Mahal) or as unintended art (like someone ‘finding’ unexpected beauty in nature)? Or might I be ‘discovering’ some form of ‘naive art’, like a Cubist coming across an African mask, or a feminist historian a patchwork quilt? And if so, am I perhaps patronising the people who made it, imputing to them an ignorance of their own creativity or even appropriating and commodifying the results of their aesthetic labour? Am I entitled to see my representation of it as an original artistic work?


View from train window, mid 1990s*

I first became aware of the beauty of the overpainting of graffiti when I took this picture from a train window in Brighton, some time in the 1990s. When I took it, I was most conscious of the pattern of black verticals and horizontals against the different reds and oranges on the station platform. It was only when I looked at it afterwards that I realised that the lovely subtle colour patterns, whose irregularities had puzzled me, must be the result of such overpainting. Despite the streaks (caused by the hairy plate on an old scanner on which a cat used to sit) I still like it as an image, especially the serendipitous way it has captioned itself with the word ‘private’.

There is something both moving and optimistic in this continuous human effort of renovating and remaking our urban landscapes. It gives us a visual representation of the dialectical relationship between originality and inherited aesthetic values, between individual transgression and collective social control, between the private and the public and between the past and the present. Unfortunately, the conditions that sustain this delicate dynamic balance are now under threat. It could easily be lost: if public spending cuts continue; if the anger of unemployed youth spills out of control; if more of our common public space is privatised and placed behind locked gates; or if ‘development’ is allowed to bulldoze our communities. Cherish it while you can.

another rothko

Another luscious ‘Rothko’ to end on*

Postscript: All this was triggered by the fact that I was burgled last week and my handbag stolen, leaving me temporarily not only without any formal means of identification or of conducting any financial transactions but also without my bus pass. As a result, I was obliged to walk along a route I usually travel by bus, giving me a chance to take photographs of the ever-evolving ‘Rothko wall’ I so often enjoy through its windows.

* click on these images to see them in greater detail.


Identity, nationality and the Olympics

When wondering what to call this post I realised that if you take the limp out of Olympics what you are left with is oiks. I’m sure there’s a joke about the coalition government in there somewhere but I haven’t quite worked out what it is yet. Anyway I decided to play safe and avoid the puns.

I discovered on Monday that the Olympic flame will be passing the end of my street on Saturday afternoon, a couple of hours after the passing of the One Hackney Festival Parade. The two processions will meet up in Clissold Park later in the afternoon, where the latter will ‘welcome’ the former to Hackney.

To a semiotician interested in identity, the coverage of the occasion in Hackney Today (the local Council newspaper) provides a rich source of tropes, adding an extra layer of complexity to contradictory discourses on unity and diversity, similarity and difference, local allegiance, national patriotism, internationalism and the embrace of the other and the competing logics of rival forms of identification. The dominant motif is a celebration of Hackney’s multiculturalism, in a tradition that goes back to the festivals organised by the Greater London Council in the early 1980s and, before that, to the Rock Against Racism movement of the 1970s.

In this tradition (in contrast with the secular tradition to be found, for instance, in Republican France) citizenship is lightly conveyed and difference celebrated. Schools commemorate Eid, Diwali, Hannukah AND Christmas. Advertisements for public services  illustrate a range of skin colours, costumes and body types, and any area in which people of different ethnicities jostle for survival is described as ‘vibrant’. The current issue of Hackney Today, for example, is careful to ensure that its depictions of Kingsland High Street (accompanying a story about the recent renewal of the pavement) show a Caribbean restaurant and the premises of the Cypriot Workers’ Association (rather than the clubs and pound shops that most people now associate with the area). This insistence on tolerance as the dominant virtue (whose opposite,  discrimination or prejudice, is thereby rendered the dominant taboo) has, it must be said, been extraordinarily successful. It has created a public culture that visitors from all over the world find welcoming and feel comfortable in, and has contributed not a little to Hackney’s current aura of coolness. Indeed, East London’s multiculturalism figured prominently in the pitch fronted by Ken Livingstone that led to the success of London’s Olympic bid.

Nevertheless, this unproblematised promotion of diversity glosses over a number of contradictions. These include multiple tensions within and between different ethnic communities, whether based on class, gender, religion or simply differences in the degrees of priority accorded to family and community loyalties on the one hand versus legal requirements and rules of fairness on the other.

In the 1980s, for instance, I remember a campaign for homeworkers’ rights (organised by feminists) in another East London borough falling foul of the borough’s equal opportunities policy because it was viewed by the ‘workers’ associations’ of various organised ethnic communities as racist. A socialist reading of this response saw it as an expression of the class interests of the sweatshop owners in these communities wishing to continue exploiting the labour of poor women workers; a feminist reading saw it as an expression of patriarchy. In either case, the equal opportunities policy was being used instrumentally, to promote the interest of a particular ethnic community, represented by its elite and dominant members. Their real motives. conscious or unconscious,  were, no doubt, a complex mixture of both of these elements, an example of the sort of problem wrestled with under the currently fashionable rubric of ‘intersectionality’.

Another dimension of complexity is introduced when one attempts to map this notion of multiculturalism onto national identity. Themes such as ‘One Hackney’ suggest that people from all ethnic backgrounds share equally in local citizenship. But this local citizenship is not seen as demanding exclusive allegiance, as is evidenced in phenomena such as ‘twinning’ with other cities in the countries of origin of local communities and a celebration of links with these countries of origin. The current festival, for instance, will feature a ‘Rio-Hackney’ collaboration, with Brazilian performers, no doubt in recognition of the recent influx of Latin Americans to the borough, alongside African drummers, Gypsy dancers, Caribbean acts and hip hop (as well, of course, as the fact that Rio will host the next Olympics).

This local identity is, to some extent, subsumed into a national identity, at least for the purposes of the Olympics: multicultural Hackney, in this discourse, represents a larger modern multicultural Britain, also reflected in the diversity of ethnic origins among the athletes in the national team. Yet there are tensions here too. Multiculturalism is generally constructed in opposition to Norman Tebbit’s notorious ‘cricket test’ (a phrase used by him in a 1990 speech in which he questioned the loyalty to Britain of Asian or Caribbean immigrants who supported the cricket teams from their countries of origin). The use of the flag of St George (the English flag with a red cross on a white background) by racist anti-immigrant parties is also disliked by many proponents of multiculturalism, though tolerated among supporters of the England football team. Patriotism here becomes a contested concept.

Simple allegiance to a national flag, anthem and team – the logic underlying the Olympic Games – is not therefore as unproblematic as it might appear. On the one hand, the logic of multiculturalism would happily accommodate an allegiance by the citizens of Hackney to the teams of the many other nations from around the globe from which they originate. But on the other hand the logic of ‘One Hackney’ also assumes a loyalty to the borough and, through it, to the larger entities in which it nests (London, England, the United Kingdom) and thus, by implication, some obligation to support the national team.

Formally speaking, the relationship between the international, the national and the local is also complicated. Here, the local trumps the international: it is One Hackney which will ‘welcome’ the Olympic flame on Saturday. But at the Olympics opening ceremony, it will be the President of IOC, Jacques Rogge, who will ‘welcome’ the Queen, as Head of State, to the Olympic Stadium, thus constituting that particular bit of East London as international territory for the duration of the event and rendering the Queen a foreigner in it, as she is in the House of Commons, allowed in by invitation only. If London hosts the Olympics which then in turn hosts the UK (which, however, has the power to ‘unhost’ undesirable visitors or immigrants) we might wonder who is ultimately hosting whom, and, indeed, what ‘hosting’, or ‘welcoming’ actually signify in terms of authority.

As the bunting goes up outside my front door, there is a lot to ponder.

Dalston clubbers

It is Sunday morning and Dalston is at its calmest. Cans, bottles and remains of fried chicken takeaways still litter the pavement; the puddles of urine are still wet in the Rio doorways, the direction of stream revealing the lie of the land; the shops are shuttered. A few straggling clubbers are still wandering up and down Kingsland High Street, with who knows what on their poor stoned minds. Trying to remember who they were with last night? Smarting from sexual rejection or a hazy memory of being found out in some act of uncoolness? Just looking for breakfast? Soon the Council workmen in their green and yellow livery will come to start clearing up and neighbours will venture out to walk their dogs or fetch a pint of milk and a newspaper. Round the corner, no doubt, the all-night cafes will be serving comforting cups of coffee to the night’s survivors.

To tell the truth, I am feeling pretty spaced out myself, it being my first morning out of bed after my most recent anaemia treatment last week. I am already starting to feel better but staring at me out of the mirror this morning from a parchment-coloured face were two black-ringed panda eyes (something to do with the way the hit of iron affects my liver which reacts to it as to a toxin, which indeed it is). So this is as good a moment as any to reflect on my profound ambivalence to the Dalston clubbers, poisoned by other substances.

I am in many ways as entertained and charmed by the Dalston hipsters as I am by the overheard self-absorbed play of four-year-olds. There is something poignant about the fragility of the boundary between looking cool and looking ridiculous, often only upheld by an enormously brave effort of self-belief; the determination to be individual in a world of mass consumption; the diligent inventiveness of their dress.

I find myself moved by the obvious high seriousness of their artistic pretentions. One morning last summer I passed a local cafe on a Sunday morning, just like this one only warmer, and there was a group at a pavement table one of whom was reading poetry aloud to his companions – who were not mocking. And a couple of months ago I went with a friend to a club in Haggerston to attend the first gig of the daughter of a housemate of hers. What this singer/keyboard/guitar trio were performing was arrangements of 19th century poetry, including a very funny version of Christina Rossetti’s ‘Up the airy mountain, down the rushy glen’ complete with animal sound-effects.

The atmosphere reminded me not so much of the later 60s, when most of the people I hung out with would have been a bit embarrassed by the reactionary connotions of such highbrow pursuits, but of the late 50s/early 60s, which I indirectly caught the tail end of, when jazz poetry was taken seriously in little coffee bars in Soho and Liverpool.

Surely these must be kids who were seriously bullied at secondary school for their nerdiness and one cannot but admire their stamina.

And yet… I suppose it is a characteristic of all Bohemias that they carry within themselves the seeds of their own destruction. Artists need audiences and most of them actively seek hangers on, even if there are some who are irritated by the poseurs and plagiarists who attach themselves to them. An artist without a fan lives with the daily risk of seeming simply sad or mad. It takes colossal courage to remain convinced of one’s own originality in a crowd of others equally sure of their own genius. And I suppose too that as long as there have been Bohemias there have been rich young people who realise that attaching themselves to artistic milieux will give them access to a sort of social status (as well as sexual opportunities) that flashing their money around in more obvious ways will not buy.

Dalston is being pummeled from two directions right now. On the one hand there has been a huge influx of such rich kids, who, in the interval between boarding school and going to work in the family business or the City and/or marrying a millionaire and/or moving to Gloucestershire or Tuscany or Provence, have decided that moving to, or at least partying in Dalston will provide them with just such an attractive aura of hipness. Ten or fifteen years ago they would have moved to Shoreditch, where there was rather little in the way of a local community for them to destroy. Now they are here in their thousands. The local police estimate that 15,000 people from outside the borough come every weekend to congregate in the couple of blocks between Dalston Junction and Shacklewell Lane. It is evident from the braying public school accents that wake us up between 2 am (when most of the clubs close) and around 5 am that these well-heeled kids make up a significant proportion of them. There is something comical in the conviction of the more naive among them that they are venturing into a dangerous slum. One summer evening last year I was disturbed by a young woman, with the accents of Roedean, telling the entire street at high volume that her erstwhile friend ‘is only jealous of me because I’m a lesbian. Well I’m not really a lesbian I do go with guys too but, like, she SO obviously doesn’t get me’. She was addressing a group leaning against my front wall, most of whom had a bottle in one hand and a mobile phone in the other. I stuck my head out of the window preparatory to asking her to turn it down a bit and she looked up at me with genuine amazement, as though she had been accosted by a peasant in Ibiza, and (well-brought up as she no doubt was) asked me very slowly and clearly what my name was, as though addressing a foreigner. Everything in her manner suggested that she believed she was conferring a favour on the whole neighbourhood by gracing it with her presence. It had not crossed her empty little mind that she might be annoying anyone. On the contrary, she seemed to think she was so interesting that any listeners would be flattered to be taken into her confidence.

But, although they have by far the most irritating voices, the young English rich are not alone. The fame of the area has spread across Europe and we are also visited by large numbers of people, wealthy enough to arrive in black cabs, speaking various European languages. Again, when they are not so drunk as to be incapable of communication, they seem on the whole to be well-mannered middle class kids. About a month ago I saw one member of a Spanish-speaking group opening his flies to pee against my front gate and asked him not to. He half zipped himself up again and inquired politely if it would be all right if he peed between two cars instead. When I said that actually the people living in the street preferred it not to be used as a urinal at all and suggested he find a public lavatory he put on the injured expression of someone who is used to being found charming – a look that said ‘but i need to pee and you look like a Mamma and Mammas are supposed to LOOK AFTER nice boys who need to pee’. But, when I refused to relent, he sloped obediently off round the corner to relieve himself. Of course there are many who don’t respond in this way. One needs to be skilled at decoding the signifiers of class and race before daring to accost anyone. ‘Why don’t you just sell your property and move somewhere else’ one guy yelled venomously at me on an occasion when I hadn’t said a word, merely appeared at the window to see what was causing a ruckus. What I found so depressing about this was first the assumption that I was an owner-occupier (which surely no-one would have made thirty years ago) and second the use of that awful word ‘property’ – the assumption that a home is just an investment. ‘But I LIVE here’, the outraged cry of millions of people around the world whose lives are disrupted by development, quite beyond the comprehension of these alienated kids.

The other aspect of the double whammy is the, quite understandable, way that copycats are trying to cash in on the cool Dalston boom. Every week there are two or three new applications for planning permission or licenses to open new bars, clubs and off-licenses or extend the opening hours of existing ones. Several of us local residents are now much more familiar than we would like to be with the green leather seats and art deco furnishings of Hackney Town Hall where we have to attend endless hearings to voice our objections, most of which fail. The entrepreneurs are becoming ever more cunning. Applications rarely spell out their true intentions. We are told that premises are going to be used for the sale of organic food or for exhibitions or the showing of artistic films or ‘community meetings’. Since the success of the Efes snooker club (where the likes of Florence and the Machine play live till the small hours in what was once a snooker hall) there has even been a spate of people wanting to host ‘indoor sports’ until 5 am. Some of the local Turkish-owned cafes trying to get in on the act haven’t quite mastered the subtle art of hoodwinking Councillors – one application currently going through the committees is for a venue with the commendably honest name of ‘Tipsy’.

With the exponential growth of what the planners coyly call the ‘night-time economy’ in Dalston, the original Bohemian cachet of the area of course starts to wear thin. It seems only a matter of time before, like Shoreditch before us, we will become a destination for stag night parties, with lurching lager-louts driving out the fey hipsters. In the process a lot will have been destroyed. Dalston is a place where many different communities have muddled along together over the years: the old white East End working class (the original model for Albert Square is only a few blocks away); a large community of West Indians who arrived in the 1950s, and more recent influxes from Turkey, Vietnam, Africa and the Middle East as well as the hippies and lefties who moved here in the 1960s and 70s and the middle class public sector and media workers who followed them here later. The chaotic and happy mixture of cheap shops, street markets, cafes, Turkish restaurants and small businesses may seem resilient, but if it were to be unbalanced would be almost impossible to reproduce. Once a high street with several cinemas and a department store, Kingsland High Street has avoided the fate of most other London high streets (petrified by the Medusa glare of the chain stores) and kept its vibrancy, thanks to the cussedness of its local inhabitants and their customers. It is now in mortal danger, not so much from the planners (although some of the new developments are not helping) but from the very effects of its own vibrancy and the affection it inspires in those seeking some sort of authenticity. Like a Greek island or a Cornish fishing village, it is dying from the very consciousness of its own charm. What we love we destroy. Or, perhaps, more accurately, what we love those who copy us destroy, but we are responsible – for pointing out its loveability. (When I say ‘we’ here I mean self-referential observant intellectuals – and yes, you too Iain Sinclair).

The Hackney planners are not really to blame here. They seem to be genuinely trying quite hard to get it right. They know that the area cannot stay still and seem really to be seeking some sort of balance. Like many others around the world they are trying to encourage the ‘creative economy’ in the area. And by some sort of slippage this ‘creative economy’ has become equated with the ‘night-time economy’ (a slippage that is perhaps understandable if you focus only on places like the Cafe Oto, the Vortex Jazz Bar, the Dalston Superstore, the Arcola Theatre and the Rio Cinema but less so when you get to the Tipsy and its ilk). So when local residents start to complain about being kept awake all night and having their doorsteps used as urinals, vomitoria and worse, these local residents are cast as anti-creative. And this is the real irony. Because just about all the local residents I know who are active in the campaign to save the neighbourhood really do create things. They are architects, painters, writers, editors, designers, film-makers, publishers, singers and actors, mostly living and working from their homes, mostly having moved here partly because it was cheap and partly because they loved the racketiness and colour of the area and were tolerant of quite a bit of noise and grime. But it is precisely these people who are now cast as the killjoy NIMBYs. And the incontinent clubbers, most of whom have never done anything more artistic in their lives than choose which ear to get pierced, are now the ‘creatives’.