Tuesday, July 24, 2012

'Whitecross Street Party', 24th July 2012

While one of my favourite things about writing this blog is getting to travel to new places in London, there is something to be said for culture coming to me.  To my literal doorstep in fact. I moved to Whitecross Street three years ago, and every year I find new reasons to love it.  There’s a smattering of excellent restaurants, including the wonderfully friendly Iskele and Cozzo, the very friendly Two Brewers pub , a bustling street food market on weekdays and a recent crop of new art galleries.  It’s a wonderful place to live.  Indeed, in 2011, it was voted ‘The Hippest Street in London.

I’ve attended the Whitecross Street Party every year it’s been held, and every year it seems to become more popular, more elaborate and more enjoyable.  This year was the best one yet.  The concept is to transform the street into an open-air art gallery, with sculpture, paintings and performances “from pavement to rooftop”.  The stalls of the foodie street market also stay open for the weekend and this year a large stage was erected at the southern end of the street to allow a wider variety of musicians to play with a good sound system.

Every Whitecross Street Party held has managed to be sunny and pleasant.  I wasn’t holding my breath this time last week.  The perpetual gloom that smothered London for much of July seemed unshiftable.  If there was to be a street party, then I figured at best it’d be one held between bouts of drizzle and under thick grey clouds.  So I when I awoke on Saturday morning to the sounds of what I assume were bagpipes through my bedroom window, I feared the worst.  Ordinarily being woken to bagpipes would rank among my least favourite starts to the day, but on opening my window the sun blazed in.  And who can be grumpy then?  As if blessed by the street party gods, the sun was out in full force, instantly filling the street with a much-needed positive atmosphere. 

Sun! (photo by Anais Gallego) 
Even when there’s not a cultural festival being held here the street usually has a few pieces of well-designed and clever street art.  It helps brighten up the place no end.  One of the aims of the Whitecross Street Party is to give street artists a place to showcase their art without being criminalised.  Indeed, Islington Council refers to graffiti as having:

“a negative effect on the lives of those whose neighbourhoods, parks, property and public transport are blighted by this type of vandalism.”

In the case of crude spraypainted tags I can see their point, but Whitecross Street would be a much grimmer place without the street artists that use it as their canvas to work on.  Recently we’ve been treated to a charming picture of Wenlock the Olympic mascot having his leg humped by a wayward dog.  In the run up to the street party we saw pictures of Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Christian Bale’s Batman and so on pop up all over the street.  I’d much rather look at an interesting piece of design by a talented artist than some blank brick wall. 

As “hip” as Whitecross Street is supposed to be, it’s not exactly the prettiest street in the world.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s far from ugly, but as things stand in 2012 there’s a row of 6 or 7 shops that have been boarded up and gutted for over a year now.  It looks like there’s some work being done behind the barricade, but I never see workmen going in or out of them, and they haven’t changed externally in a very long time.  Artist Malarky's mural, that's been painted onto the flat, officious white of the chipboard is a testament to how much a nice bit of a street art can improve the tone and mood of a street. 

Take THAT 'the Man' (photo by Anais Gallego)
Peppered up and down the wall of the Peabody Estate are a number of other excellent pieces of graphical art, with a stand out being a typically striking billboard by Shepard Fairey.  This party is billed as the ‘Rise of the Non-Conformists’ (a reference to the non-conformist religious past of the street), and much of the art exhibited is satirical in nature.  There’s a few very funny and occasionally scary Olympic satires, as well as some nicely executed and witty observations on the surveillance state.  Without this touch of politics to the work, the party could fall into the trap of being a mere celebration of aesthetics.  That’s not necessarily a ruinous thing, but the fact that some of the art has some political meat and anger gives a tinge of authenticity to the rest of the art upon display.  The underlying philosophy behind much of street art is anti-establishment and rebellion, perhaps naturally given that the very act of making it often breaks the law, and even though this is a festival sanctioned and promoted by the council for a moment you can fool yourself into believing all of this is underground and rebellious.

Shepard Fairey (below) (photo by Anais Gallego)
The most impressive painted piece on the street is undoubtedly Conor Harington’s brilliant painting of a man in period gear.  When I first saw it, I’d assumed the paint had begun to run in the rain, but it’s clear that it’s supposed to be like this.  I’ve seen similar paintings that I assume are by Harington in Hackney, and they stand out as particularly surreal and strangely soft and textural pieces of art.  Street art is generally (by necessity) bold, thick lines, immediate and quickly comprehensible graphical imagery, but Harington’s work is soft and almost liquid, seeming to not only be blurred, but to blur the surroundings.  You have to stop and examine it to fully appreciate it.

Conor Harington's piece (photo by Anais Gallego)
It was a typically good year for sculpture, with the cast iron skull sitting between two buildings a definite highlight.  The exhibition goes on until the beginning of September, and the art is left in place until then – you find yourself wishing they’d never take certain pieces down.  The black iron skull is one of them, I’d be overjoyed if that was permanently installed there.  One of the small downsides of a street festival like this is that it can be quite difficult to work out who's responsible for it, but they deserve no small amount of praise.  Other notable sculptures are the man-size femur propped against a wall, a set of robots helping each other onto a rooftop, and a robotic homeless man, constructed from consumer goods.  The only piece that falls a bit flat for me is a pile of boxes perched on the edge of a rooftop.  It looks a bit out of place in its austerity perched on the side of a building.  All of the art, even the more delicately executed pieces rely on a strong visual ‘punch’, and this is a little bit bland for my tastes. 

The Skull (photo by 'surreyblonde')
But this is a minor complaint, wandering down the street you notice more and more pieces of art that you’d previously missed.  A fake window high up on a wall has a police sniper hidden behind it, and a nondescript door on the wall opens up to reveal an idyllic beach scene, blue plaques for 'English Hedonists' detail the ‘hidden’ history of the street and flying eyeball mosaics dot the spare patches of wall.  It’s a visual feast, and one of the many reasons why I was praying for sun.  All of this art loses a lot of immediacy and vitality when it’s viewed under an overcast sky.  When the sun is blazing onto the street the whole place pops with colour and life!

Happy crowds (photo by Anais Gallego)
It was also an impressive year for music, although I didn’t get to see half as much as I wanted to.  The music stage was much more impressive than previous years, taking up the width of the street.  I enjoyed the variety of the Key Changes Musicians, a therapeutic music service for patients in acute psychiatric care in Islington.  It was pretty wild stuff, with the musicians ranging from  gently acoustic covers of Bob Marley’s One Love, to wild, screamed crunk duets.  I think my favourite was an extremely animated performance from a man singing about how he wanted to be allowed to be himself.  A lot of the performers were quite static and a little nervous looking, but this guy really threw himself into it, jumping around the stage and loudly asserting his individuality..  As he left, the compere noted that this man (whose name I unfortunately can’t remember) had never and could never be anything but himself.

Key Changes (photo by Key Changes)
The next act I saw in full was Jenny Hallam, a singer/songwriter playing light, summery indie sounding tunes.  Many of them had a bit of a Regina Spector feel to them, and in a line up that  was a bit skewed towards loud and fast music she was a breath of calm, cool air.  There were maybe 40 to 50 people watching her on a small stage, and she seemed quite sweetly overwhelmed by the crowd, repeatedly saying what a wonderful place the street was, and how much she was enjoying being there.  Her good mood was infectious, and contributed no end to the happy, friendly atmosphere around the stage.  

Next up was a small child, (I think she was called Esme) who sang a song.  I don’t need to say much more about this than that it was very beautiful and honest in the same way that a small child singing a song generally is.  There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.   What a lovely, lovely voice.  

Next up, and in complete tonal opposition to the sweet young girl singer was two rappers.  They were really bad, so I left to check out the dub reggae stage at the other end of the street.

Bike poking out of wall (photo by Anais Gallego)
The ‘Solution Soundsystem’ is a new addition to the street party, and (together with the smoke of the jerk chicken stand next to it) turned a small part of the street into the Notting Hill Carnival.  If there’d been someone selling coconuts filled with rum the illusion would have been complete!  I don’t really know that much about dub reggae to make any assessment of whether it was good or not, but I do know it certainly was loud.  I suspect that loudness and bone-shaking bass are pretty much the primary factors on whether dub works well, and it certainly had that. 

All of the art and music, coupled with the great food and very affordable art and fashion makes for a great day.  My only regret is that I didn’t have enough time to see it all.  I managed to miss the giant mechanical fire-horse and the huge pink robot, due to being elsewhere in London on the Sunday.  Even so, it’s a wonderful, unique event in London, and I feel extremely lucky to have it all taking place right outside my house.  It's such a strange experience to be walking through throngs of people, surrounded by talented artists and gorgeous art, and being able to step into my house for 5 minutes.  It's been a highlight of my summer for three years now, and I expect it to be one next year.  Roll on 2013!

Photos courtesy of Anais Gallego at http://thisisthebananaline.blogspot.co.uk/

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