Of place and being out of place. A Letter from London
Natalja Vikulina 18/03/2017
As I write these lines, it is my almost-home borough of Harrow outside the window: rows of uniform little houses flanked by accurately trimmed shrubs and lawns. At any time of the year, there is a rose in bloom or some other flower to look at. And even now, despite it being February and zeroish outside, there is a rhododendron with huge indecently blood-red blossoms behind my window. I show it off to my visitors as a special feature.
James Graham Ballard described the London suburbs as places with perfectly trimmed lawns and hygienically clean roadways, the heart of Britain ‒ home to the middle class, somnolent people who have already bought everything they have ever dreamed of. ‘Asleep in their drowsy villas, sheltered by benevolent shopping malls, they wait patiently for nightmares that will wake them into a more passionate world...’ – written by Ballard a little over a decade ago, these lines still hold absolutely true today.
Speaking of his own home town of Shepperton (another suburb west of London), Ballard wrote that the majority of Londoners would never set foot there. Londoners cross these areas as they drive home from their country outings via M25; whooshing past the rows of identical houses, they experience ‘polite horror’. My Harrow (north-west London), while already outside North Circular, is not very dissimilar to Ballard’s Shepperton. The mere mention of Harrow makes most of my local acquaintances raise an eyebrow (usually it’s the right one). Indeed, the place is undecidedly unfashionable: no hipster cafés, jazz clubs, cute designer shops, second-hand bookstores and vintage bicycle repair shops. This is no Dalston. Bicycles are not popular here, and, as I cross the neighbourhood on my new bike with the loud brand name of Hendricks (a recent present from my friends as a replacement for the old one, stolen by the local thieves), I can almost sense the Harrow locals regard me with a feeling usually described as ‘a mixture of horror and admiration’.
And there is a difference between the Ballardian sleeping districts and Harrow, where I live. The difference lies in the fact that, over the course of the last decade, the nocturnal nightmare of the London suburbs has crossed over from the realm of dreams into the area of mundane everyday life.
Like the majority of people populating this island, it was from the papers that I became aware of the fact that the nightmare has become reality. Last 24 June could be recorded in the calendar as the National Sobering-Up Day (as fate would have it, the referendum on leaving the EU coincided with the Midsummer Night celebrations). While one part of the country clearly realised that the nightmare had happened and something had to be done about it now, the other, with mixed feelings, became aware of actually being this selfsame catastrophe.
It is a 10 or 15-minute walk from my home to the nearest tube station (Kingsbury, almost the very end of the Jubilee line, Zone 4). Part of the route follows the same quiet little streets described above. Early in the morning (around 6) the nearest bus stop is jam-packed with Rumanians on their way to building sites scattered throughout London. Their girlfriends, easy to recognise by their ‘uniforms’ ‒ a kerchief, dark cardigan, flat shoes and a straight skirt matching the cardigan ‒ stay at home taking care of the children. They will appear in the street a few hours later, placidly pushing their prams. These women will be followed by sari-clad older ladies emerging from completely different houses to take a stroll to the nearest greengrocer’s and buy all the necessary ingredients for their curries. The vividly colourful clothes look particularly impressive combined with their parka jackets and the scarves wrapped around their heads.
Perched literally on the border of the quiet neighbourhood and the noisy Kenton Road, there is a Jewish school ‒ a solid one, boasting the best showings in the whole borough. Children ‒ boys sporting kippahs and curly-haired girls, all of them wearing bright-blue uniforms emblazoned with the acronym JFS (Jewish Free School) ‒ come here to study from all the nearest neighbourhoods. As soon as you pass the school, the quiet, peace and measured pace of life come to an end, and you practically dive into the commotion of Kenton Road. The five-kilometre Kenton Road connects the noisy, bustling, shouty and quite slovenly Kingsbury with the historical centre of the Borough of Harrow. These five kilometres are lined with Indian restaurants and caffs, car repair shops, greengroceries selling every possible variety of exotic fruit and vegetables (after five years of living here I still don’t know the names of all of them) and charity shops where you can buy yourself a sari for a couple of quid; lately they have been joined by some Rumanian shops, symbols of what had only recently seemed the eternal ethnic rotation of London.
Set on a hill, the historical centre of Harrow can be seen from afar. The view of London is beautiful from here, and every time I find myself pondering the yawning chasm that separates the ‘up there’ from the ‘down here’. ‘Up there’, it’s all about historical 17th-century architecture; everything is pristine and museum-like. A huge part of these buildings belong to the famous British public school named, appropriately, the Harrow School. It is one of the oldest and most expensive schools in the country (the fee is approximately 40 thousand GBP a year), and one of the most prestigious as well. Its alumni list includes, among others, Lord Byron and Winston Churchill, members of the royal family and, why not, also Benny the Cumberbatch. Two worlds which, despite living closely side by side, will never intersect.
The problem of place is inseparably linked to the problem of identity. A banal idea – yet one that has to be reasserted every day in action. After all, every time you answer the question of where you are from, you are forced to define yourself one way or another, in a wider or a narrower sense. A city of immigrants, London is a place where everyone belongs and everyone is a stranger. My own sense of not belonging has become a space that is very convenient for thinking and creating.
In one way or another, every one of my recent artworks has been dealing with this very thing, with a place that is out of place. There is a spot on the map; the map itself seems to make a claim to be objective: latitude and longitude; GPS; you can trace your routes or, on the contrary, plan a new one every day based on some sort of logic. For instance, plan it in a way where your route would make up a new word every day; one week is enough to write a hokku. Sounds amusing enough ‒ but what does it tell us about place as such?
Every spot on the map ‒ that’s a million stories existing simultaneously, intersecting and leading to other places, other stories. Perhaps that is the reason why oral history has become so popular in contemporary art. I am not speaking just ‒ or so much ‒ of myself here, although my latest project does deal with a place that exists only in memories (‘Out of Place’, 15 minutes, HD video). There are countless projects working with memories recorded in one way or another.
A fragment from the ‘Out of Place’ video work
For instance, Bettina Furnée creates text installations based on stories about the Second World War as told by residents of a little village called Bawdsey. Bawdsey is a tiny place on the east coast, in Suffolk, with an observation post extant since the times of the Second World War, almost completely reduced to ruins today ‒ a brutal concrete building lost in the middle of a wilderness. No-one really ever comes here anymore, but should someone still happen to end up here and find their way through the wild grass to the two-storey stone hut (I really don’t see how else to describe this structure), climb the ladder to the first floor and walk up to the tiny window to peek out at the sea, they will notice ceramic beads threaded on the metal bars; on the beads, there are letters, which, in their turn, make up words and even fragments of sentences: the pilot was a New Zealander; there was a terrible smell; drone, a constant drone; they used to have a siren down at the manor; they’d shake you out of bed at night; the put-put of the doodlebugs... Or let’s take Graeme Miller who set up radio transmitters alongside M11. There used to be houses there where people used to live; the buildings were demolished to make way for the new motorway; the locals were resettled elsewhere – a typical gentrification story. Now there is a motorway; the posts with said transmitters are scattered along both sides of the road. As soon as you approach one of them, the sensor detects you and a voice from the transmitter starts to narrate its story.
And then there is Emma Smith; she has come up with a somewhat more intricate and sophisticated approach. Her ‘Playback’ is likewise based on stories recorded during a field trip in the neighbourhood of the multicultural Church Street in London. What Emma Smith has done is make something similar to a board game featuring a set of cards. The game comprises 18 different scenarios; each player is dealt ‘their’ personal story which they are supposed to tell others in the course of a dialogue and, in their turn, listen to the other player tell theirs. Incidentally, more than five years ago, ‘Playback’ was brought to Riga (as part of the Survival Kit festival). And it does exist in two editions to this day, the London version featuring text in English, Arabic, Farsi and Cantonese, and the Riga one ‒ in Latvian, Russian, Ukrainian and Belorussian.
At the Showroom Gallery, the ‘Alpha, Isis, Eden’ exhibition
A new joint show by two artists ‒ Laura Oldfield Ford and Jack Latham ‒ opened recently at the Showroom Gallery, in the vicinity of said Church Street. The title of the exhibition (admittedly, the actual term ‘exhibition’ does not really seem quite appropriate here; it is, rather, a single work, albeit one that fills a whole floor), ‘Alpha, Isis, Eden’, contains the names of three buildings scheduled for reconstruction in the nearest future. It was an area largely untouched by gentrification but is now on the cusp of transformation, the press release sadly informs us. Huge sheets of plywood feature pictures of the abandoned houses with superimposed text; a female voice reads stories recorded by the artists during their walks in the neighbourhood. The personal intertwines with the communal, the intimate with the political.
Fragment from the ‘Out of Place’ video work
No man is an island entire of its self. On this island, of course, everyone seems to be talking of one thing and one thing only: is Britain really an Island or an island? A place is always either a battle field or a field of interaction. And even the very discourse of place has now become a battle place. No discussion ‒ including the ones at arts schools, a graduate of one of which I recently became ‒ is complete without a mention of globalisation or, say, time‒space compression. Yes, taking a flight (especially a Riga ‒ London one) is for me almost as normal as a ride on a bus; yes, the things that I wear are, as likely as not, made by people working in a number of countries (designed in one of them and made in another from fabric manufactured in a third one); yes, even the person that I am is the result of interaction between several cultural traditions. Those who were in favour of Island voted, among other things, for ‘authenticity’, for ‘tradition’, for British museum values, for the elite Harrow School housed in picturesque 17th-century buildings (the special irony of the situation being the fact that the majority of those who voted in favour of Island will never ever be a part of it), for boots made from the hide of Yorkshire cows, custom-made for you in Chelsea from an 18th-century pattern (yes, the order will, of course, set you back at least half the monthly wage of an ordinary Rumanian labourer freezing at the Kingsbury bus stop in my neighbourhood ‒ but it will be authentic). And while the argument rages on as to just how high we should really lift our drawbridges to keep alien carriers of unfamiliar cultures from infiltrating ‘our’ castle, samovars and all, more than one rock has been slowly worn down by rain. And I know who it is that they are talking about, who it is that they are hinting at. And I bristle.