Wednesday, July 24, 2013

'Whitecross Street Party 2013', 20+21st July 2013

Midway through Sunday afternoon I was walking down Whitecross Street, enjoying the sights, the sounds and the smells of the street party when I passed a pale old man with milky eyes and a scruffy white beard.  He reached out and grabbed my arm with a steely grip, looked at me, and with a quavering voice said "Help me, I don't know what's happening."  

It's an understandable point; loud drum n bass was booming a rat-a-tat beat; giant writhing tentacles had sprouted from a building site; bombs with bushes growing from them were suspended on free-fall above us; everywhere was the hubble and bubble of sizzling meat and yelling kids.  Hardly the quiet and calm of a usual Whitecross Street Sunday afternoon. But this is party weekend, our own personal Carnival, a sudden rush of art, crafts, fashion, food and music.

The street party in full swing.
What makes this party pop is the tug-of-war between these disparate elements.  The street party bills itself as 'The Rise of the Non-Conformists', and is focused around anti-establishment, overtly political,  provocative street art.  This stands slightly at odds with an inclusive community ethos. Local historical societies, Oxfam tents and cooking classes for the elderly occupy the same space as adverts to science-fiction mutant prostitutes and hyper-muscled nude women with cheesecake expressions of surprise on their perfect faces.

Science fiction mutant prostitutes - by Saki & Bitches
This was a party of wild contrasts.  On the ultra-wholesome side you have children's charity Aquaterra, who set up a fitness/sports centre for children in Fortune Street Park.  As they showed children how to kick a football, you could almost see their saintly auras glinting in the noon-day sun.  Similarly sweet were kid's rock band 'The Escape', who are a bunch of 10 or 11 year olds belting out covers of pop songs.  They're quite brilliant, though this just makes it more all the more surreal, especially when as a finale they cover the faintly kinky song Tainted Love.  It's a wholesome, high-pitched sugar overload, but undeniably fun to watch.

The Escape 
On the freaky, fucked up side of the equation is the glaring, embroidered face of serial killer Rosemary West. She is a black hole of sexual sadism, and she's lodged right in the middle of kid-friendly fun times.  Talk about a fly in the ointment! This was such a provocative piece of art that I had to go and chat to the artist, Lucy Sparrow.  She explained that it was a commentary on the glamorisation of women; the piece is in the style of Andy Warhol, who produced glamorous pictures of celebrities like Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor.  So what happens when those Warholian principles are applied to someone like Rosemary West?  
Lucy Sparrow and her piece on Rose West.
This is art with a  built in shock value, something designed to provoke a reaction.  In these terms, the piece was a big success - random passersby would periodically yell abuse at the Sparrow or even threaten to burn the piece to the ground.  It probably says something about the weird elevation to celebrity of serial killers that even in embroidery West's smirk is instantly recognisable. 

This wide spectrum of experiences in one place is one of the reasons I enjoy this party so much.  Another is getting to meet some of the locals.  I tend to scoff when people describe London as an antisocial city (if you're not making new friends on a near weekly basis you're doing it wrong) but the only regular interaction I tend to have with my actual, physical neighbours is when they bang on the wall late at night to tell me to keep the noise down.  So,  finding the St. Luke's Community History Group literally on my doorstep was a pleasant surprise.  I've been living here for a good few years now and feel pretty attached to the area - but my experiences pale into comparison when you're speaking to an 88 year old guy who's lived here his whole life.  

The St. Luke's Community History Group
I've done my own bit of historical research about the area, and it's nice to compare notes about the Victorian debtors prison, the local slums and the night the Luftwaffe bombed it all away.  One of the things I love most about living in London is the intense sense of history you get nearly everywhere you are.  Whitecross Street is no different, the various configurations throughout the years being home to murderers, gin palaces, treasonous plotters and performers of nationally renowned bizarre sexual performance art.  

This makes the Street Party so vital, drab, ordered brickwork putting on its glad rags and showing the talent that lies beneath.  The art that hangs on these walls turns architecture into a surreal theme-parkish world, one with dogs and cats peering over the tops of buildings and screwed up nightmare baby dolls crying out in triumph over a torched car.  

But it's Filthy Luker's tentacles that really stick in the mind. There's two sets, one of the exploding out of a building, leering across Old Street at the top of the street, and another four emerging from a building site midway down the street.  There's a Lovecraftian feel to these things, and the way they burst from within existing architecture make them seem like aspects of a far bigger being.  As well as being the most attention-grabbing things here they're also the most appropriate.  This is art untamed and unknowable, the definitive example of the architecture of the street as a foothold for something weird and alien.

Life on Whitecross Street is fun as hell nearly every other day of the year, but especially on the day of the street party.  I hope it continues on in the same vein for many years to come.  Great art, delicious food, neat things to buy and above all else, friendly and interesting people to chat with.  All under a clear blue sky.  All on my doorstep.  What more could a person ask for?

The Street Party has finished, but the art exhibition will on display until 13th September.  Pop down Monday to Friday for a kickass world food market, or simply wander around on a weekend.

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