Thursday, September 1, 2016

'London's Burning: A Festival of Arts and Ideas', 30th August - 4th September 2016

"A woman might piss it out." These are the immortal words of Thomas Bloodworth, Lord Mayor of London, on viewing the early Great Fire and deciding not to take action to halt its spread. After casting a cursory glance over the conflagration, he went back to bed and presumably had a nice doze. Over the next three days it destroyed more than 75% of the city he was in charge of, consuming 13,200 houses, 87 parish churches, St Paul's Cathedral, and most of the buildings of the City authorities. 

So, as far as municipal cockups go, it's a biggie. Boris Johnson may have been infuriatingly shortsighted, but at least he didn't destroy most of the City of London.

Martin Firrell's Fires of London
After the Great Fire, most of the City's population were moved into temporary shelter in Islington and Highgate, some remaining there up to 40 years later. With much of the City a smouldering ruin, ambitious architects began to draw up plans of a 'New London', of Parisian style boulevards and grand squares. But tradition (and commerce) prevailed, with the City being built to much the same street plans as before, but with stone buildings and stringent fire regulations.

This leaves us (more or less) with the London we know today. From a modern viewpoint the Great Fire now seems like more of an opportunity than a tragedy; historians paint 17th century London as a tinderbox just waiting for a fire to hit it, so it had to burn sometime. In addition, it's often theorised that the fire helped stamp out bubonic plague in London. There were repeated epidemics prior to 1666, but none after. 

Now, to mark the 350th anniversary, events coordinator Artichoke are laying on an arts festival across the Square Mile. It's a kaleidoscope of installations, performances and lectures - from eye-catchingly ginormous set-pieces to sober academic talks on the cultural, political and social interpretations of urban disaster.

I attended the press launch last night, getting a taste of what's planned for the City over the weekend. 

Most obviously eye-catching is David Best's 'London 1666', in which a huge 120m wooden replica of 17th century London will be towed between Blackfriars and Waterloo bridge and incinerated. The structure is the work of London schoolchildren and young carpenters on a work experience programme. I've just seen it on video, but it's a hauntingly pretty skeleton, crowned by the lost spire of Old St Paul's.

Of All the People in All the World

I was lucky enough to get a preview of Of All the People in All the World, by Stan's Cafe. Set in the fascinating surroundings of Inner Temple, the exhibit is watched over by the stern faces of the four judges who settled the many legal disputes following the Great Fire. Essentially, this is art meets infographics - all based around the principal that a single grain of rice represents a person. 

So, for example, you can compare the population of London in 2016 and 1666, see how what portion of the 1666 population was made homeless and then compare it to other great conflagrations. Reducing each person to a grain of rice is both darkly amusing (especially when notable people like Charles II are represented by a lonely grain) and also strangely moving. It's a strange feeling to gaze down at a heap and realise that somewhere in there is a grain that represents you.

So, the festival is on from the 30th to the 4th, with full listings here:

My personal picks are:

London 1666: Watch it Burn - 20:30, 4th September on the river.

"London 1666 is a collaboration between American "burn" artist David Best (Temple) and Artichoke to create a once-in-a-lifetime event. Built with a major learning and participation programme that has engaged hundreds of young Londoners over the course of several months, an extraordinary 120-metre long sculpture of 17th-century London skyline will appear on the river Thames and be set alight, in a dramatic retelling of the story of the Great Fire of London of September 1666."

Of All The People in All the World - 30th Aug - 4th September, Inner Temple Hall

"Of All The People In All The World brings historical and contemporary statistics to life using an unusual medium: rice. With one grain representing one person, this performance installation will explore London from 1666 to the present day, linking the City with the world: triumph and fire, travel and trade."

Fire: Threat and Saviour - 19:00, 2nd September, 280 Bishopsgate

"Why are we so fascinated by fire? From the Fire Brigade’s highest-ranking female officer, to historians and an archeologist, hear five unique perspectives on this topic as part of the London’s Burning programme."

When Things Go Wrong: 21st Century Responses to World Trauma - 14:00, 3rd September, Barbican Cinema

"The London’s Burning programme explores contemporary crises, and the different responses to disaster and devastation. How do figures of authority manage the public’s concern and distress? In this talk, the panel will examine the rhetoric used to discuss catastrophe and the psychology of crisis and mass emergency behaviour."

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