by ROSANNA MCLAUGHLIN
Born in Yorkshire in 1973, Laura Oldfield Ford moved to London in the early 90s. In the decades since, she has been walking the streets, recording her journeys in drawings, paintings, sound and prose. Between 2005 and 2009 she produced the zine Savage Messiah, a diary of her drifts through a city undergoing rapid redevelopment in preparation for the 2012 Olympics. Detailed within its collaged and photocopied pages is a search for moments when the prevailing order breaks down – riots, raves and areas of the city still beyond the scope of property developers – moments when the hegemony and homogeneity of neoliberalism are temporarily overcome in a heady rush of collective action. Savage Messiah gained a dedicated following and, in 2011, a complete collection of the zine was published by Verso Books.
A month before the opening of her current exhibition, Alpha/Isis/Eden at The Showroom, London, I met Oldfield Ford at Edgware Road underground station in central London, a short distance from the gallery. She took me on a tour of the neighbourhood – the focus of the show, and an area in the throes of an extensive regeneration programme. In person, as is in prose, Oldfield Ford is liable to flights of ecstatic political language. In the grim drizzle of a winter’s afternoon, I was given a heated history lesson on the local area, in partisan shades of black and red: the uncertain future of Church Street market, the depleted council housing, and Paddington Green police station, where terror suspects are held. We stopped for coffee to get out of the rain, and from our table watched the builders across the street, at work on an enormous luxury housing development. “It’s a vexed area,” she said, looking out at the hoardings, and it was easy to see why.
Rosanna Mclaughlin: Your exhibition at The Showroom is titled Alpha/Isis/Eden. It is an evocative combination of words that calls to mind – among many things – militancy, religion and antiquity. How did you come across this as a name for the show?
Laura Oldfield Ford: The title refers to housing blocks around Church Street, near Edgware Road, that have been marked for demolition. The names loomed up somehow, emerging like talismans from the site maps and plans in the regeneration office. I knew that they couldn’t be erased by Westminster’s master plan.
Isis House is opposite The Showroom. The fact that people are seduced by Isis [Islamic State] and the distortion of an ideology isn’t surprising – resentment is piling up, despair is increasing, mosques are being turbo-boosted by Saudi (Wahhabi) money – but, really, I think it reflects the desire for a shattering of the social order, a dismantling of reality. Isis is a goddess of the chthonic realms [the underworlds of antiquity]. A liminal figure, she pieced the fragments of her dead husband’s body back together and restored his life. In that sense, she has a shamanic quality. I walk around London to gauge what’s happening, to tune into the affective shifts. This is how I think about walking and memory, as a process of piecing fragments together to resurrect something, to stop them being erased, and to will something into being. The council block Alpha House is on the site of Alpha Cottages, a place where William Blake and some of his acolytes used to experiment with magic and psychoactive substances. Alpha is about starting again, the beginning, but really there is no beginning, only time-slips, gaps, repetition, haunting.
Eden House on Church Street encapsulates the idea of the enchanted garden, the unexpected encounter with the unregulated or un-surveilled, which is a recurring obsession in my work. There is a ghost story by HG Wells, called The Door in the Wall (1911), about a child discovering a magical garden in an ordinary London street, and the subsequent conflict between the garden’s allure and the pull of the worldly and mundane. I recognise this experience in places I think of as liminal zones, places stranded between abandonment and speculation.
RM: Does the Edgware Road area have particular significance as a liminal zone?
LOF: Church Street, the area around The Showroom, is a pocket of old London about to be subsumed into Westminster’s regeneration plans. It still possesses a quality of pre-restoration London: the old rookeries, proper pubs, a sense of intensity and belonging without a stifling idea of community. Now, with the council forcing people out to Essex and the Midlands and giving planning permission for luxury developments, this movement and transience is threatened. The new flats are safe-deposit boxes for the rich; they represent ownership, permanence. The Berkeley Homes development West End Gate will dominate and overshadow the area. But that plot has always felt vexed, something that is compounded by the fact that it is located next to Paddington Green nick [police station], where they hold terror suspects.
RM: You have previously described your work as a form of “hauntology”, a term Jacques Derrida coined in his 1993 book Spectres of Marx. Can you explain what hauntology means in relation to the things you make?
LOF: I am taking the term from conversations I had with the cultural theorist Mark Fisher, who wrote the introductory essay to Savage Messiah, about the idea being haunted by lost futures. I think about walking in the city as a way of unlocking memory, of encountering time slips, dreams and desires. I’ve been in London since the early 1990s, so it is inevitable that I walk with ghosts, that no corner or side street can ever be empty. We all have this experience. Streets are indelibly marked by moments of socio-political intensity – uprisings, occupations and raves, trauma, anxiety and militancy – as well as the tremors and faultlines of your own past. The purpose of my walks is to identify something lingering, fizzing in the present. I’m not thinking about memory as a sanitised image, but as a texture in the moment, the sense that a place is crackling with agency. For me, this spectrality allows for a revisiting and reactivating of emancipatory currents.
RM: Your exhibition at the Center For Contemporary Art Kitakyushu, Japan, 8 million Kami, which ended last month, was also a form of reactivating a past moment – only, this time, a historical dream was being brought to life in the present, rather than an actual event.
LOF: Kitakyushu is a fairly affluent city, buoyed up on debt and protectionist policies. But when I saw its booming steel and chemical plants, it made me think of an alternative or lost future of the north of England. It made me think of that scene in the film Solaris, where a future Russia was filmed on the elevated motorways of Tokyo. The city appeared to me as the future I dreamed of as a child in 70s Yorkshire; the future we might have had if the miners had won the strike, if the decision to close heavy industry and implement neoliberalism hadn't been made.
RM: Like 8 million Kami, Alpha/Isis/Eden incorporates audio-recordings of the local area. You describe these as “field recordings”, a term used in anthropological studies. Do you consider your work as a form of anthropology?
LOF: No, not really, as that implies a separation, an objective distance from the places I am making work about, which I don’t claim to have, and don’t want to have. If you look at it in academic terms, I suppose I’m an “embedded subject”, meaning I am absolutely of that terrain. I am not an objective outsider coming to observe: I am drawing on experience and memory, collective memory, tuning into the currents embedded in the walls. And it’s not about belonging to a community in a bourgeois sense of owning property or investing in a particular geographical area, but being part of a nomadic movement: belonging everywhere and nowhere, being connected by experiences of precarity, transience and anxiety, while also being emboldened and invigorated all the time by flashpoints of militancy and euphoria.
RM: London’s central zones – once working-class areas – have increasingly become the territory of the super rich. Many of the areas that featured in Savage Messiah as contested sites are now occupied by a new and affluent demographic. More recently, you have been researching deindustrialised zones on the outskirts of cities. Does this shift in focus indicate a change of frontline?
LOF: My recent research in the UK has been about the shift to the suburbs, the outer zones. That’s mostly where you have to go now if you want to encounter the former intensity of zones 1 and 2 [the innermost areas of the capital, as designated on the London tube map]. It used to be the inner cities that were sacrificed, ruled by slum landlords, starved of investment and surrounded by circles of unreachable affluence. But in the past decade or so there has been an accelerated reversal of this process. This is what Savage Messiah was talking about: living through that wave of evictions and displacement. Places we thought of as ours, which had been maligned by the press – places such as Brixton and Notting Hill – suddenly became desirable to a new colonising class and were subsumed under the rubric of heritage. These sites previously contained spaces that opened for experimentation and drifting: they were significant radial points of countercultural activity. There is a sense of melancholy and anger pervading those sites, the idea that lacunae of utopian imaginaries can be locked down and sold off as investment opportunities.
RM: Brutalist architecture has featured regularly in your work. In contrast, a lot of the new housing developments going up in the capital are designed to look bucolic. Advertisements on hoardings, such as those surrounding the West End Gate development, promote leafy, village-style living, and there is a prevalence of wooden cladding and circular windows that echo boats and barns. Does brutalist architecture appeal because it is the antithesis to this?
LOF: Brutalism is important because of the collective ideals inherent in it: the rethinking and radical reshaping of public space, the idea of cities being conducive to an endless “derive”, the postwar idea that everyone is entitled to a publicly owned house. They seem radical now, but these ideas were being implemented on a practical level then. I grew up in the 70s and 80s, when the modernist estates were already in a state of decline. There was a deliberate Thatcherite policy to starve estates of investment, to run them down along with ideas of the collective and the commons. In the 80s and 90s, I saw brutalist structures that had been subverted and occupied, such as the Crescents in Hulme, Manchester, and my experience of that has massively influenced how I think about architecture. When fragments of stricken inner-city zones are revealed to us now, in the midst of rampant development and gentrification, they appear as apparitions, uncanny visitations from another social reality. I’m thinking of Elephant and Castle in south London, where, up until a year or so ago, abandoned brutalist housing estates became sites of a contemporary rus in urbe, as exuberant flora exploded through garden walls and balcony railings. I thought of them as the spectral sectors of the city.
RM: What is the relationship between Savage Messiah and the work you are making now? Do you conceive of it as the same project?
LOF: It’s the same project. Mark Fisher described it as a sprawling, tuberous collage, and I see the whole project as that: a series of informal and sprawling relationships and collaborations, meandering drifts and conversations. The issues of Savage Messiah, which focus on gentrification and displacement, were a forecast of something that is now accelerating, but there was more to it than documentation or reportage. It was a series of stories; broken narratives that articulated a certain moment, a certain relationship with the city. It was about transience and impermanence, but also about the bonds that form in those moments: kinship, comradeship and love.
RM: Your drawings have a strong connection to the fanzine, and people appear in idealised form: wide-eyed and beautiful. I recently came across a triptych you painted of three young men involved in the 2011 London riots, based on mugshots the Metropolitan police posted on their Flickr page. These works seemed to be involved in transforming images that were intended to name and shame into a form of iconography.
LOF: That work was called Chrysanthemums, Urns, Shells (2014). I suppose it was about anger – anger that the channels that had been open to working-class people were closing down, and that those with class privilege were dominating every arena: the arts, politics, everything. I thought the response to the London riots, the “broom-brigade” [groups of residents who took to the streets as part of a post-riot cleaning operation], was a clarifying process, because it exposed the middle-class contempt for the working-class, an almost fascist disdain for those they perceived as beneath them. I remember the dehumanising language used by these so-called liberals – terms such as apes, rats, chavs and scum – and the evocation of community in recently gentrified areas such as Hackney and Clapham, where owning property and sharing a certain set of values allowed you access. I had been living around Hackney for decades, but felt nothing in common with these new colonisers. It was clear to me that they were the real vandals, not the kids going mad with euphoria when the feeling of atomised powerlessness momentarily dissipated. Those portraits were a way of refuting the horror of that broom-brigade idea of community. They were about me saying: “You can’t look at those faces and apply the kind of language you’re using.”
In a way, this is what I mean when I say Savage Messiah is a long, unfinished collage. The project is an ongoing mapping of ruptures like the London riots, the breaks in the flattened time of a “continuous present”, as [Marxist theorist] Fredric Jameson describes it. I often refer to Jameson, especially this passage from his 2009 book Valences of the Dialectic, where he talks about a proximity to other realms: “It would be best, perhaps, to think of an alternate world – better to say the alternate world, our alternate world – as one contiguous with ours but without any connection or access to it. Then, from time to time, like a diseased eyeball in which disturbing flashes of light are perceived or like those baroque sunbursts in which rays from another world suddenly break into this one, we are reminded that Utopia exists and that other systems, other spaces, are still possible.”
RM: Desire and politics are often entwined in your work. In Savage Messiah, in addition to recollections of sexual encounters, the language you use to describe architecture, and the thrill of collective action, is described in heightened language and immersed in erotics. Can you say something about the relationship between desire and political action?
LOF: So much of the so-called left has become de-libidinised and boring, involved in finger-wagging sermons instead of collective euphoria. I love those moments of intensity when time is suspended, when it bends and folds, moments when the city becomes elevated and you feel a collective seizing of power. It is a glimpse of another reality where everything is imbued with a prismatic glow. It’s like falling in love, or the intensity of desire. The Reclaim the Streets parties in the 90s were like that – high streets were transformed, subverted in an ecstatic rush – or free parties on industrial estates, when mundane yards and units would become psychedelic. The traces and memories of those intense encounters are recorded in the architecture. I think that’s what I meant before, when I said the streets are never empty, because you can walk around a corner and unexpectedly revisit a point of intensity. It’s that rush, the memoire involuntaire that can shake you up physically, reactivate that moment. When those streets are gone, written over, buried under the dead weight of luxury flats, that’s when the city becomes really spectral, when you have to acknowledge the spectral presence. That’s when you have to acknowledge the revenant structure as a capsule of stories, memories and desires.
RM: Artists easily (and often unwittingly) become gentrification’s scouts, arriving in areas where the rent is relatively cheap, and making them appealing to the middle-classes who follow in their wake. What would you say art’s role in the gentrification process is? What can or should it be?
LOF: My friend, the artist John Wild, came up with the idea of negative ambience. We had been saying we had had enough of all the cupcakes and bunting and artists fetes, that the energy of punk and rave culture, the militancy, anger and humour of Class War had been lost in this drift of Cath Kidston niceness. We were bored with hipsters saying they had voted for Boris Johnson for London mayor because they liked Routemaster buses, we were bored of artists doing pop-up events in the ground floors of future yuppie-dromes. So we said artists should really be dispensing with all this false idea of community and openly identifying with class, instead of disavowing it in a sludge of identity politics. We should be making places uninhabitable for property developers, not making their job easy. I often think about Whitechapel [in East London] in relation to this, how the street art and pop-ups down Brick Lane allowed estate agents to market the area as edgy and exciting, whereas the political graffiti, the anarchist, communist and Islamic stuff south of Whitechapel High Street was much harder for them to assimilate – because they couldn’t make the agents of these movements into neoliberal subjects. Artists should be transforming atomised despondency into politicised anger.
• Laura Oldfield Ford: Alpha/Isis/Eden is at The Showroom, London, until 18 March 2017.