Tuesday, July 30, 2013

'Artch London Spontaneous Combustion Festival', 27th July 2013

Hackney Wick is about to explode.  The battle lines are drawn.  On one side are the long-term residents of the area, those who've watched a slow decay and think of warehouses as a place to store things rather than an exciting residential opportunity.  On the other are the artists, most of them relative newcomers, springing into the neighbourhood with floppy haircuts, expensive coffees, limited edition Converse and omnipresent Apple Macs.  The best representation of this conflict is the the graffiti covered exterior of the Lord Napier pub. Disused since the nineties, pub wall has had a photograph pasted on it comparing 'then' and 'now.  A line-up of bearded men drinking bitter is contrasted with an empty, graffiti covered street.  Below it some unhappy local has scrawled "If U R a so called artist in "The Wick" then U R a CUNT!"  

I was soon sat outside 'Crate' ("the first craft Brewery and Pizzeria decorated with reclaimed materials from around The Wick") watching people shove slices of stone-baked Sage & Truffle pizza into their faces.  I couldn't help but think that the foul-mouthed pen scrawler might be on to something.  There is a stink in the air and for once it isn't the canal. This is the stink of gentrification.  Artists need a cheap place to live, so end up flocking to areas like this, brightening up the place with interesting graffiti and fun parties.  Unwittingly, these pioneers are economic shock troops, softening the area up for the arrival of the middle-aged bourgeoisie, who drive up the property prices and boot out  poor creative types and locals alike.

Hackney Wick is at the tipping point, precariously balanced between being affordable, interesting and welcoming to newcomers, and being assimilated by voracious City working Mummys and Daddys looking for a nice neighbourhood for young Max to grow up in.  Into this powder keg comes Spontaneous Combustion, a festival of dance, movement and performance.  This is a vanguard of the art crowd, its mission statement to "break down any barrier between artist and non-artist worlds" - an effort to ally with their natural allies, the born n' bred Hackney Wick residents rather than the rah-rah mush-mouthed posh gits that would seize the area for their own sinister ends.

The first artist I saw was Mirei Yazawa.  The performances took place on the pathway running alongside the River Lee Navigation, with the audience sitting across the water. A space this large and open meant there was a danger of her performance appearing too small, the soundtrack and the subtlety's of Mirei's movements would be lost.  I shouldn't have worried.  To a mournful, Ennio Morricone-sounding trumpet solo she unfurled a bright yellow flag and swirled it around herself.  These movements looked martial, like a military drill.  Periodically she'd lie the flag on the ground and paint something on it, small black stripes, and eventually an ∞ symbol and a large black circular smudge.  

Mirei Yazawa
As the flag was decorated it got longer and longer, swirling around the artist - by this point as much shield as banner.  Considering the space she was performing in, a shield is appropriate.  Mirei was performing against the backdrop of a vast piece of space-age graffiti behind her, an abstract portrayal of what looked to me like either the birth or death of the universe.  Behind her a black hole gazed down on her like a giant staring eyeball - dance as an act of defiance to vast and knowable Lovecraftian terrors.  Slightly more prosaically, she also had to defy speeding cyclists whizzing up and down the tow path towards her, at times playing a kind of real-life Frogger.

At the climax of the dance she unfurled the flag to its full length and ran up and down the length of the space, the fabric floating in the wind behind her.  She looked like a standard bearer on the front lines of a battle, something out of a propaganda poster.  It was a great, dynamic image, the dramatic swoosh of the flag amplifying her movements brilliantly .  The running motion filled the space perfectly, taking full advantage of the long, narrow path.  

The Uncollective (and random members of the public (and a dog))
Next up was The Uncollective, beginning with seven dancers writhing randomly at the banks of the river.  Their weird mania attracted the attention of two fluorescent vest clad security guards, who watched, bemused, downriver.  I find it endlessly fascinating watching what happens when the space a performance is taking place in becomes intruded upon by the public, in this case a mixture of Saturday strollers, pushchairs, bicycles and dog walkers. The Uncollective were dressed relatively normally, so you end up with a weird hybrid. Passers by become dancers, against their will, melting seamlessly for split second intervals into the performance. 

Just over the road in a small industrial estate is ]performance s p a c e [, where Cluster Bomb [collective] were getting ready to perform a version of Breaker's Yard, their J.G. Ballard car themed piece.  I've seen two of these performances before, one at LUPA 16 in February, and the other at the LUPA Fete in June.

This began on the bridge over the River Lee, where three performers dressed in a badass uniforms were hanging out.  Camo jackets, bare legs and wild, bright red wigs were the order of the day.  An exhaust pipe was, as usual, being wielded like a ceremonial staff.  With this in tow, three performers set off on a loop around the local area, apparently with the aim of drawing people towards the performance.  It's questionable how successful this march was, walking silently through a pizzeria clutching an exhaust pipe is hardly the Pied Piper of Hamlin.  

Scarlett Lassoff
On their return the three stood around being cheekily insouciant, reading out little fragments of Concrete Island: "Aren't you being a little selective?", "You can leave any time you want." Divorced from context and shorn of real emotion they sound like jigsaw pieces from some random domestic argument.  After this the warehouse opened, revealing the chickenwire car I'd seen at the previous Breaker's Yard performance.  A man sat inside, and set fire to a map which was in place of the engine block.

As the flames died down, the red-haired tribe arranged the pieces of chickenwire around the 'driver' as if he'd been in a wreck, leaving him twitching in the centre of the room.  Then they picked up the tyres and acrobatically cavorted with them, rolling them around their bodies, poking through the centres and balancing themselves on top.  It was yoga for mechanics, the artists contorting themselves, like they were trying transform themselves into humanoid cars by force of will alone.

With a crashed car at the centre of the room containing a gravely injured man and fetishistic communion with car parts the atmosphere was suitably Ballardian.  There's a sick glee to the way they meld themselves with the artificial, blurring the line between rubber and flesh. Yeah it's overtly weird to watch, but the idea of a fulfilling relationship with cold metal, oil, hydraulic fluid and molded plastic is an idea we can see enacted right across modern media; in Top Gear or the grinding pornographic chaos of Michael Bay's Transformers films.

Kerstin Møller
Throughout these performances there's a constant theme of a return to primal instincts. Prehistoric animistic religions worshipped horses as gods, they could have been the panting, sweating, shitting hope of a family.  Now we have worship lumps of steel.  People sense they're missing out on some kind of connection, so they try to foster relationships with their cars. They fall head over heels in love with the metal slave that ferries them around in a hermetically sealed, air conditioned leathery womb.

Throughout the performance curious people were wandering over to see what was going on. They tended to stick around, as did the workers in the nearby warehouses (who must be somewhat used to this sort of thing by now).  This isn't exactly the most accessible bit of art around - it helps if you know a bit about Ballard - but even if you walk up to it knowing nothing about what's going on it's at the very least interesting.

Being 'interesting' is the best arrow in the Hackney Wick artist's quiver.  Perhaps this is the glue that'll help the artists and historic residents stick together to right off the depredations of those that would price any sane person out of the area.  It's easy to scoff at the pretensions of young Hackney Wick creatives, but it's difficult to argue that the street art covering the bricks of the Victorian buildings doesn't brighten the place up.  If it weren't for them these factories would be dead buildings, but while they may not produce dyes and plastics anymore, they at least produce culture.  Some of it's trash, some of it's valuable - yet whichever it is the area would be a poorer place without it.  

Let's hope the tension between newcomer and local will cease as they realise they share a common economic foe.  They say if you listen carefully enough in Hackney Wick you can already hear the malevolent hum of SUVs somewhere off in the distance.  It's ominous, but it can be staved off for a while yet.

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