Monday, July 21, 2014

Whitecross Street Party 2014

There are few finer feelings than skipping out of your front door right into a street party. Now in its fifth year, the Whitecross Street Party is one of the highlights of my calendar and cements why this is my favourite street in London. Admittedly, living here is pretty ace the other 363 days of the year, but for this weekend the neighbourhood pops on its glad rags and shows off, strutting about with a spring in its step.  

But first the weather. After a week long heatwave papers were warning of "the storm to end all storms". I awoke early Saturday morning to a grim scene; lightning was tickling the City skyscrapers and thunder was wobbling my windowpanes.  Ah shit, this doesn't look particularly great.  Someone must have made a sacrifice to the God of Weather though, because as people turned up the weather kept getting more and more lovely, and largely stayed that way for the entire weekend.

As far as I'm concerned it just isn't right to have a party like this without a spot of sun. Bright pools of primary colours dot the drab Victorian brickwork up and down the street, glowing in the noon haze. This is the yearly exhibition entitled The Rise of the Non-Conformists.  Strapped up to the walls is a motley collection of pop-inflected street art, most of it playfully political.  They remain for the rest of the summer, continuing to improve everyone's lives even after the rest of the Party has long since disappeared into hungover memory.  

My favourites this year were Louise Zergaeng Pomeroy's striking portrait of a woman with a couple of wrenches jammed through her cheeks.  Rendered in clean-lined comic book style there's something wickedly funny about the deadpan expression on her face that seems to read: "Oh great, not this shit again."  Similarly neat is the black and white sign reading "Your mind is crazy and tells you lies.".  It reminds me of the Rowdy Roddy Piper/John Carpenter classic They Live, where the truth behind advertising is revealed by wearing special sunglasses.

Also brill are the this-weekend-only sculptures situated up and the street.  Funniest was a remote-controlled wheelie bin courtesy of the Bureau of Silly Ideas.  With the pilot casually observing from a safe distance, the bin appears to be possessed by a malicious artificial intelligence, whirring across the road to block pedestrians, honking at them and even, my favourite, spraying them with a blast of water.  Most people take it with good spirit (every child loves it) but there's a sadistic side of me that most enjoys it when adults get genuinely annoyed - it's impossible to keep your dignity when you're scowling at an apparently sentient bin.

Similarly neat is the striking visual of an apparently dead body lying inside a giant birdcage.  On close inspection it's a mannequin, but at a glance it looks disconcertingly lifelike.  This helpless, somehow injured body, surrounded by people looking in other directions made me think of the 'Bystander Effect'; namely the larger the crowd, the greater the diffusion of responsibility.  So if we see someone laying in the street and we're the only person about we might stop and check whether they're alright.  If there's a hundred of us, we'll figure "eh, someone else will sort them out". 

Next to that is the segmented graffiti wall.  The air is thick with the acrid yet comforting smell of spray paint, discarded stencils lie on the ground and all about the artists scurry around making their mark.  I particularly like Leeks' giant Spider Jerusalem from Warren Ellis' Transmetropolitan.  Jerusalem is a futuristic Hunter S Thompson, and here we see him booting down the door of a corrupt politician. "I don't have to put up with this shabby crap!" he yells, and below someone has written "So I'm going to Whitecross St!" - a surefire way of appealing to my sense of community pride.

For all the art on display, it's the performers that inject the street with that distinctive carnival atmosphere.  Special mention has to go to this child I happened to catch playing a piano in the middle of the street.  An enraptured, hushed crowd listened as he picked his way through some standards, making me feel like a talentless sausage-fingered bum.

Also fun to watch was regular Whitecross Street Party attendees, Bramble FM.  Parents watched in quiet confusion as, to Motörhead's Ace of Spades, a dinosaur women and a mostly naked man clutching a bone wrestled with each other amongst the crowd, before splatting down into a tub of bubbly water.  

All that said, the best performer I saw all weekend was also the last.  Babsical Babs and Punkture Sluts were absolutely tearing it up on Garrett Street.  With woozy bass beats filling the road she stomped up and down like she owned the place.  She blazes with charisma, winning the audience over pretty much from the word go.  Her outfit makes her look like a punk rock commander and her reflexive thrusts and wiggles injecting a bit of sexy/ramshackle anarchy into her set.  The crowd really gets into it; one particularly statuesque woman conducting a singlehanded stage invasion - bossing a bemused Babs about and at one point demanding the microphone for an impromptu verse.  "I've gotten to the point in my career where I need security" Babs quips. Even a percussion band parading up and down the street doesn't throw her off - this woman is way past cool (and I've made a note to track down her next gig).

It was, as always, a lovely weekend and I'm hugely grateful to the organisers for putting together the event.  I don't think it was the best this party has ever been - there was no monumentally amazing sculpture like the inflatable tentacles, last year's giant black skull, or Wreckage International's Triceratops from a couple of years ago but hey, I'm not going to pick holes.  Already looking forward to the next one.  

Onwards and upwards Whitecross Street!

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