art, gentrification, and architecture: exploring art's role in the 21st century city

A new exhibition at Peckham’s Bold Tendencies is tackling art’s role in gentrification.

by Jeppe Ugelvig
30 June 2015, 9:15am

A few minutes walk from Peckham Rye station, behind the local cinema, lies one of the strangest public art spaces in London: a giant, 9-storey brutalist car park. Impractical, windy, and potentially unsafe—it has transformed Peckham into a contemporary hub for social recreation and cultural showcases. The car park has been subject to criticism in the current political debate surrounding gentrification in London. Who owns or belongs in Peckham, and are they the ones using the car park's cultural menu? While democratic and accessible culture are two very different things, they are both deeply connected to the class, race and infrastructure of a city.

As Matt Bolton from OpenDemocracy pointed out a few years ago in a Guardian commentary, the car park becomes, through its noticeability, its height and scale, an all too noticeable symbol of London's out-of-control gentrification: 

"…a sky-high contemporary gallery in one of London's poorest districts, packed each evening with painfully well-dressed young white people supping Campari bitters, who gaze down upon the streets of pound shops, mobile phone stalls and cheap clothes stores below."

The simple grandeur and altitude of Bold Tendencies, and in particular, Frank's, gives association to classic architectural metaphors of the class-functionality of a city - the city's economic elite sipping Campari at the top of the high-rises, or in the converted warehouses of the Brooklyns or Shoreditches of the world, while the lower-classes meddle in the 'lowly' pedestrian sphere of the city, excluded from such (literal and metaphorical) heights and the benefits of money in 21st century London.

But as any person living in a city today will know, this is challenged in a world of rapid and unsynchronised development, and challenged, most of all, by culture itself, and its followers, as they migrate to, from and between areas of a city. Art can and has been the agent of gentrification--but it's never as straightforward as Matt Bolton argues, because it's also a victim of gentrification, and can also be a critique of it too--whether that's in commercial galleries, private collections or public museums.

The two projects currently on display at Bold Tendencies are examples of this. The works of London collective ÅYR--formerly AIRBNB Pavilion, recently changed their name due to legal pressure from the San Francisco based company--and the Dutch duo Metahaven. Notably both are collaborative practices that emerged from outside the art world—architecture and graphic design respectively.

At the 2013 Venice Architecture Biennale, ÅYR curated three concurrent shows in rented AirBnB apartments in the city, as a critique of neoliberal sharing economies. Based in Amsterdam, Metahaven operate multidisciplinarily in their exploration of contemporary digital life--they produce publications, films, writings and exhibitions, while functioning also as a normal graphic agency.

The show's curator, Attilia Fattori Franchini, from Dalston's Seventeen Gallery, explains: "I kept asking myself how the commissions could function as platforms for the evolving ideas that address the rapid transformation that the area is undergoing, and relating to the wide range of audiences that pass through the site." Transformation, movement and change are exactly the concepts that spring to mind when ascending the many flights of stairs that lead to Bold Tendencies.

With their project, titled Aspects of Change, ÅYR presents a series of CGI images of surreal yet immediately recognisable hipster interiors: stylised graffiti merges with delicately arranged art books on a shelf; the perfect colour schemes of middle class kitchens; Scandi-mania wood panelling; the faux Italianisms of a white-washed wall, creeping vines and a Moka pot. Their imagery beautifully echoes the professionally-lit and aesthetically-speculated interior photography of many real estate agencies in the surrounding area. The sanitisied post-gentrification life.

Through a series of tableaux, they mimic the iconography (the shiny marble, casually but carefully arranged kitchen utensils) of the gentrifying demographic to raise an awareness as to how we consume such imagery, in what they describe as an "attempt to canonise hipster aesthetics and gentrification motifs." The collective hired professional CGI animators to produce the images, guiding them via mood boards and examples of actual domestic photography; in fact, one of the pieces were constructed directly off the London home of designer Tom Ford, while another was inspired from artist Cindy Sherman's Hamptons residence.

These 100% digitally produced images might be uncannily hyperreal, but within them there are elements of surrealism; the trompe l'oeil of the eternally mirroring perspectives create the illusion of hypnotic depths, violently contrasted to the one-dimensionality of the piece the moment you walk around it. The imagination of the contemporary interior aesthetic reveal itself to be deceivingly shallow, acting only as an illuminated veneer.

The dark and anxious is visible, too, in Metahaven's Possessed, a series of designed garments that discuss the over-determination of contemporary life by social media. Installed on a structure of wooden panels, the garments feature a mesmerising grid of tech gadgets and cell phones as a visualisation of technological accelerationism, where the hyper-connected user is haunted by the omnipresence of the digital world. Next to them are piles of sand, as a counterargument to time passing faster and faster, and finally, giving a glimpse of the dystopian future that could be approaching. A melancholic sound piece by Lauren Halo accompanies the work, and every month over the summer, a new garment will appear on the structure, actively changing the space it exists in.

"Public space is [becoming] ever more private, and the real struggle happens when your private space becomes public," ÅYR explain. The projects actively reflect upon the current political and economic situation in Peckham--how technology and capitalism work together in gentrifying an urban space, and imagining the uncanny similarity interiors of a post-gentrified world.

The light boxes on to which ÅYR's images are installed evoke the special kind of illumination that also glows out from advertisements and department stores - their radiant, commercial hipsterdom stands in an almost god-like contrast to the plainness of the building. Metahaven show the passing of time with blowing sand piles on top of the shiny plastic panels - inversely communicating with the stillness around them.

The installments actively discuss the violence inherent in any form of occupation of space, as they change and reconfigure the architecture, infrastructure, atmosphere and purpose of the empty, ghostly compound. They are themselves violent - or call out a violence that is already present in the space. They exemplify the image-culture that dominates current culture and visualises the face of violent gentrification, or our class-connoted fantasies about interior aesthetic, cultural life and the passing of time.

Bold Tendencies is as much a platform to discuss the politics of space and architecture of the urban landscape as it is a poverty-exotic destination for the young and creative South and East London bourgeoisie. Neo-liberal capitalism has taken its hold on all aspects of life, including the showcase of art, so it seems the most suitable that the critique of it should come from within. "Violence in art is necessary sometimes," ÅYR finishes - "especially given the context."


Text Jeppe Ugelvig
Images courtesy the artists and Bold Tendencies

Think Pieces
airbnb pavillion
attilia fattori franchini
bold tendencies
jeppe ugelvig