Doreen Fletcher: artwashing the east end with Bow Arts

It is beyond question that Doreen Fletcher is a talented painter, and her paintings display a nostalgic sentimentality for a rapidly changing east London, an east London whose communities have faced a turbulent time over the past 20 years, as the east end is changed beyond recognition.

Bartlett Park by Doreen Fletcher. Bartlett Park in Poplar has seen heavy residential development, and now houses an arts organisation under the control of Poplar Harca.

Fletcher has been adopted by the East London Group, which promote the works of painters such as Albert Turpin and Harold Steggles, “mostly working class, realist painters whose formal education had often stopped at elementary school”, they portrayed a grimy smoke-filled vision of the east end. Doreen has been promoted as a “lost artist”, an artist previously ignored by the art establishment, whose work is now being brought to the attention of the public by Paul Godfrey, aka The Gentle Author. Godfrey has published the monograph Doreen Fletcher: Paintings under his own Spitalfields Life publishing house. The book is published to accompany her exhibition with Bow Arts at The Nunnery.

Doreen’s paintings at best visually fit the canon, and at worst are derivative of the East London Group, who primarily worked in the first half of the 20th century. At the same time as the East London Group were painting the streets of east London, a wider revolution was happening in British society. In Poplar, a rates rebellion had led George Lansbury, a Labour Councillor that fought and was jailed for fighting for the rights of the working classes in his community, to become MP for Bow and Bromley and Chairman of the Labour Party. The horror that had been the 1st World War led to a boom in the building of social housing for working class communities, and the fallout from the 2nd World War led to the creation of the welfare state; free medical coverage, free education and most importantly, a safety net for those who fell through the cracks.

Shakey’s Yard in Winter by Albert Turpin

However, in post-Thatcher austerity Britain, a neoliberal agenda is being pursued by everybody from government, education to the arts. In the current turbulent political climate, comfort can be found in a romantic painting of an east end long since vanished, and Doreen provides plenty of comfort for us to reminisce over the past.

Godfrey’s claims that Fletcher is a lost artist however are all part of a smokescreen, an illusion that preaches community and integrity and celebrates the working class artisan, whilst imposing its singular view upon us; that of white, middle-class gentrification.

Fletcher’s CV reveals she is far from that of a lost artist, with paintings held in the collections of many civic and financial institutions. The lost artist claim serves to build up Fletcher’s mythology; to sell books, to sell paintings, but even more sinister: to sell the east end to an affluent class of investor, for them to romanticise its history; nostalgia for displaced communities that they themselves are replacing.

Stop the Blocks campaign poster featuring Balfron Social Club

Paul Godfrey, aka the Gentle Author, first came to my attention in 2015 over his involvement in the Stop the Blocks movement. Stop the Blocks first appeared in June 2015 and disappeared just a few months later. Stop the Blocks campaigned to “save Shoreditch from the shadows” and a well attended rally was held and glossy leaflets and a large poster were produced. The poster featured local activist campaigns, including Balfron Social Club and Save Chrisp Street, accompanied by hand drawn pictures of the territory we were fighting for, including Balfron Tower.

Godfrey wrote about Balfron Tower:

Built as council housing, designed by Erno Goldfinger in 1963 and made a Grade II listed building in 1996, Balfron Tower is now being sold off by Poplar Housing & Regeneration Association. Current long-term residents are being forced to sell and moved out while the famous block is being fetishised in a sixties-style marketing campaign to attract private owners. The circumstances at Balfron Tower are a prime example of how social restructuring is devastating London’s working-class communities. Another layer of social division was added when artists renting emptied properties were co-opted tacitly into PR for the sell-off – a process that has become known as â€˜art wash.’ 

And he wrote about the campaign to Save Chrisp Street Market:

‘Save Chrisp St Market’ is campaigning to inform local residents and traders about the proposed ‘regeneration’ of Chrisp St Market by Poplar Housing & Regeneration Association (HARCA). The plans include ‘luxury’ housing and stores, at the expense of shops and accommodation affordable for local people. Traders will be booted out for the period of redevelopment, or longer – if they cannot afford the increased rents. Traders say they have been left in the dark about the future of the market. Save Chrisp St intends to do their own consultation in parallel with­­­ Poplar HARCA’s, by going door-to-door asking people about what they would like to see for the area. So far, many people have said they want the market to be improved, but not at the cost of their ability to live there. Save Chrisp St are working to make sure that the community has a proper voice. 

Stop the Blocks, August 2015 (pic: Rab Harling)

Despite involvement in two of the campaigns featured, no contact was ever received from Godfrey, or any of his associates before publishing the Stop the Blocks campaign poster. Stop the Blocks claimed to be a “network of grassroots Tower Hamlets campaigns fighting gentrification and social cleansing,” but seemed to be co-opting other groups, many grateful for the exposure for their campaign, for their own short-lived cause. So, it later came as no surprise to discover Godfrey had joined forces with Bow Arts.

Bow Arts had been at the forefront of the recent trend of using artists to help property developers displace communities. Their poorly managed occupation of a number of estates managed by the housing association Poplar Harca had imposed arts-led gentrification across a number of sites in the process of being socially cleansed in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets.

The Albion Public House by Doreen Fletcher

The use of artists as the foot soldiers of gentrification had various levels of success, depending upon who you asked. The Bow Arts Balfron Tower Case Study, which was no doubt lapped up without question by housing association Peabody when choosing Bow Arts to help artwash their social cleansing program in the London suburb of Thamesmead, told of a fantasy that existed inside the head of Bow Arts CEO Marcel Baettig, a fantasy where artists benefitted from targeted harassment, monitoring of their social media accounts and happily donated their landlord, a registered charity, thousands of pounds a year as a donation, taken illegally from their rent.

Bow Arts purpose was clear: it was, and remains, a publicly-funded charity who supply artists to property developers to help artwash the social cleansing and the dismantlement of social housing. Their involvement in the artwash and social cleansing of the infamous Balfron Tower serves to remind us of the direction being taken by Arts Council England, to take the lottery receipts from the Heritage Lottery ticket customers, and use it to artwash the dismantlement of our social assets.

So, is Fletcher innocent for turning a blind-eye to how Bow Arts operate? I certainly made Fletcher aware of how Bow Arts operate many months ago, but like so many artists, she chose to ignore the behaviour of who she is working with, giving them her endorsement, as well as the endorsement of the East London Group. Godfrey’s prior co-optation of sites of contestation in the east end, such as Balfron Tower suggest he was already fully aware of Bow Arts controversial role in the artwash of the east end, but chose to collaborate with them regardless. No support was ever received by Godfrey in our campaigns to save Balfron Tower or Chrisp Street Market from gentrification.

It disheartens me that artists allow their art to be deployed as a weapon against society, artwashing the reputation of some thoroughly greedy individuals and organisations, and there is no doubt that this is what Fletcher’s retrospective at Bow Arts does. Fletcher’s baby-boomer narcissism may allow her to ignore, support or collaborate in the social cleansing of the communities that she painted, but the rest of the East London Group, now deceased, have now had her ethics imposed upon them. This association with Bow Arts damages the legacy of the East London Group of painters; painters unable to object.

Balfron Social Club

Poplar, 25th January 2019

Notes:

Doreen Fletchers website https://www.doreenfletcherartist.com/

East London Group on Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/East_London_Group

George Lansbury and the Poplar rates rebellion on Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poplar_Rates_Rebellion

Closed House Weekend by Stop the Blocks in Design Exchange Magazine http://www.demagazine.co.uk/architecture/closed-house-weekend-spitalfields-life

Balfron Tower: the Artwash of an Icon by Rab Harling in Urban Transcripts Journal http://journal.urbantranscripts.org/article/balfron-tower-artwash-icon-rab-harling/

Artist squares up to Regulator over “manifestly unreasonable” fundraising investigation by Christy Romer https://www.artsprofessional.co.uk/news/exclusive-artist-squares-regulator-over-manifestly-unreasonable-fundraising-investigation

Artwash and the Rhizome (the Social Cleansing of Poplar)

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This talk was commissioned by The Rainbow Collective (1) and was first delivered at Building a Movement at the East End Film Festival (2), London on 14th April 2018.


In this talk I will attempt to draw analogy between a rhizome and the organic interconnectivity of community and how through genetic modification the rhizome can be engineered to work against the community in the service of property developers, focussing on Poplar Harca (3), Up Projects (4) and my own research in Balfron Tower (5).

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Balfron Tower, Poplar (pic: © Rab Harling)


When I first started living and working in Balfron Tower at the start of 2011, alongside my planned photographic project to turn the tower inside out using large format photography, to reveal a cross section of the tower depicting the interior worlds of its residents, I also proposed alongside to map the rhizome-like structure of the community living in the Tower, and as the project developed, to record the community’s interconnectivity as it prepared to be decanted of its social housing tenants, prior to the regeneration and 100% privatisation of the block by registered social landlord Poplar Harca, in partnership with Telford Homes (6) and luxury property developers and Presidents’ Club (7) table hosts Londonewcastle (8).

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There was some understandable outrage amongst tower residents when publicly-funded Bow Arts (9) flounced into Balfron Tower, in 2007, promoting it as Artwash Central, commissioning the likes of John Walter and Simon Terril to become the friendly faces of artwash and of their imminent gentrification, further confirming the profession of artist as mere foot soldiers to property developers intent upon feasting upon the carcass of our social housing.

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It wasn’t long before the residents committee banned art projects in the tower, a ban aggressively enforced against any artist daring to be creative outside the confines of their own home (at least not without official approval in advance).

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This made it necessary to map interactions with residents in a very different way than had I put up posters on a Poplar Harca controlled community notice board encouraging people to come forward to participate.

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Instead, I got to know my neighbours and integrated myself into the community and made myself a useful person to know, and it wasn’t long before I was a familiar face around the building, sometimes to a mixed reception, somewhat understandable given the conflicted nature of a community in the process of being removed from their homes, all the whilst being surrounded by a group of mostly middle class artists purposefully and insensitively placed there to raise the profile of the building, and the value of the homes they were being decanted from.

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In my attempts to map the interconnectivity within the community, by encouraging neighbours to tell their friends in the building about my work and to encourage their participation, I discovered that there were a lot of people who were very isolated and alone within that tower.

-There were a lot of people who quite simply did not know any of their neighbours at all-


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Images from Inversion/Reflection: Turning Balfron Tower Inside Out by Rab Harling


In some cases I faced some hostility (more often from the artists than anybody else), but in most cases my neighbours were friendly and welcomed me in to their homes and willingly and enthusiastically took part in my project to document their surroundings, before they were written out of the history of the great Erno Goldfinger’s greatest achievement.

Before my eviction from Balfron Tower by publicly funded “charity” Bow Arts, at the end of 2013, in an attempt to sabotage my work as revenge for questioning significant anomalies in their taxes (10), I had spent three full years working and living in the building, and 120 out of 146 of my neighbours had participated in my work, creating an incredible archive of life in Balfron Tower during its social cleansing.

Whilst a potential attempt to map the rhizome was theoretically there in numbers, it was simply not there in connectivity, with most neighbours being far more isolated than had been anticipated.

The divide and conquer tactics used to clear the community of Balfron Tower had been very effective, decimating a once proud and friendly East end community. A community that had famously been moved street by street, from the old terraced slums into the great futuristic architect designed communities in the sky, had been all but destroyed by systemic practice to dismantle any potential opposition to their social cleansing and the sale of their social housing as luxury properties to Canary Wharf bankers and architecture professionals with no sense of moral outrage.

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Making sense of the metaphor

This brings me to my second look into the rhizome and the darker nature of community connectivity, which is to look at the forces that led to the social cleansing of Balfron Tower, that led to the purposeful devastation of an established community over a period of ten years, the length of time it took to clear Balfron Tower.

One of the most common complaints I heard when speaking to people in Poplar is just how little support local people receive from Poplar Harca, which effectively runs Poplar as an unelected local authority, including providing community centres, markets, parks, police and schools, which are all very much under the control of Harca.

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A Poplar Harca public consultation on the regeneration of Chrisp Street Market, 2013


Complaints are common that Poplar Harca are running the community for the people they want to live there, rather than the people who do live there; placemaking a future community to create their vision of “a new Shoreditch” whilst carrying out sham consultations, organising fake petitions as well as practically every heinous act a social landlord could carry out against a community it desperately wants to displace.

If my rhizome analogy functions in relation to a successful community, or the failures in the mapping of an unsuccessful one in the process of decant, such as that found in Balfron Tower, how would it work when applied to Poplar Harca, the Registered Social Landlord?

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Artwash is not welcome in Poplar


The arrival of the Victoria and Albert Museum in Poplar, with the creation of the Lansbury Micro Museum (11) at Chrisp Street Market, seems to typify the kind of memory harvesting being undertaken by artwashers, supported by the property developers whose interest they serve.

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The Lansbury Micro-Museum at Chrisp Street Market, a joint venture between the Victoria & Albert Museum and Poplar Harca


A “micro-museum”, as was the case at Chrisp Street Market, or some other attraction arrives in the neighbourhood. They are friendly and welcoming and host all sorts of events to try and engage the community.

Meanwhile, they seek to harvest your photographs, your memories, which they will use to reminisce your passing, as you are forced out of your community, as your social housing is demolished and replaced by “affordable” housing you cannot afford, with an awful lot of units for sale, via a solicitor in Hong Kong (12).

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Memory Harvesting on Brick Lane


And don’t be too surprised, if you take part in one these artwash exercises, to find your grandma staring back at you on a hoarding surrounding a building site that has no social housing, telling you about the wonderful heritage you could be a part of; subject to contract and a significant deposit; for a 25% share in a tiny new-build, so long as you meet the criteria to receive “affordable” housing, and earn approximately £70k per year.

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Sonya Boyce on the Up Projects homepage


The addition of new board members in 2017 to Arts Council NPO Up Projects could be a good indication of their genuine mission rather than their stated aims to place contemporary art in public places. Through the prism of Up Projects I will investigate just how well the rhizome can function, should a clear agenda be identified; or a hidden agenda on behalf of a property developer.

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Paul Augarde claims to have â€œspent a decade making feature films.” yet his IMDB.com profile reveals a very different story (13).


In addition to Xanthe Arvanitakis, commercial director of Soane Museuem, Helen Pheby of Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Paul Augarde, Director of Placemaking for Poplar Harca, was also appointed to the board of directors of Up Projects in 2017, so it might be interesting just to take a look at the accounts of Up Projects to see where they get their money.

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Up Projects Statement of Financial Activities (14), 2017 

Their accounts reveal that over the 2 years, 2016 and 2017, they received donations and grants of over £811,000. Let’s take a closer look at this income, perhaps to see if they are funded to fulfil some sort of agenda.

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Up Projects Analysis of Grants Received (15), 2016 & 2017

Arts Council England is their greatest funder, supplying Up Projects with over ÂŁ271,000 of public money over two years. Significant sums were also received from the British Film Institute, Queen Mary University of London and the Canal and River Trust, spotted recently writing supporting applications to the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, in support of the regeneration of Chrisp Street Market by Poplar Harca.

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The architect of Poplar’s social cleansing, Steve Stride, CEO of Poplar Harca


However, the most revealing grants come from Foundations for Future London (16) who generously provided Up Projects with £95,000 over two years, and on their board? The architect of Poplar’s social cleansing, Mr Steve Stride, Chief Executive of Poplar Harca and Paul Augarde’s boss.

These examples just scratch the surface of the rhizome, which weaves a sinister pattern, repeated again and again across Poplar.

If you want to open a pub appealing to middle class gentrifiers, such as the Galvanisers on the Coventry Cross Estate then you get five years free rent from Harca. If you are a Bengali seamstress wanting to open a small stall at Chrisp Street Market, then you find their terms and conditions so stringent, along with your childcare and other family responsibilities, that the dream dies.

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Free rent for some

If you have the right connections and want to open a bicycle shop in the market, then you get ÂŁ17,000 free rent from Poplar Harca. However, if you are a trader seen to protest the unwanted gentrification of the market, you suddenly find your rent triples to ÂŁ27,000 and you are forced to voluntarily close up your business, as has been reported to me by market traders this week.

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Londonewcastle showing gross insensitivity in their celebration of the social cleansing of Balfron Tower


Anybody who takes a look beyond Poplar Harca’s glossy PR with a critical eye quickly sees their shine tarnish as their shallow motives are revealed; to force the poor from our communities, to dismantle our social housing, in collaboration with HSBC and luxury property developers like Londonewcastle and Telford Homes, and to ensure their legacy as managing agents and co-landlords in the replacements to the social housing they are dismantling.

I appreciate my view that Balfron Tower should retain at least 50% social housing after regeneration is controversial and is clearly an outrageous demand, particularly of a Registered Social Landlord that was given 9000 properties by the London Borough of Tower Hamlets free of charge. I appreciate that not everyone shares my view.

If you would like to hear another point of view on Balfron Tower, from a public school educated architectural historian, who has never lived there, Owen Hopkins of Soane Museum is giving a talk at Sutton House next week, hosted by Pages of Hackney, a Clapton bookseller and The Guardian’s former gentrifier-in-residence Dave Hill (17).

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Wayne Hemigway’s ‘pop-up’ plan sounds the death knell for the legendary Balfron Tower, Oliver Wainwright in The Guardian, 26 September 2014  (18)


Held in a National Trust property, again revealing NT’s taste for the artwash and social cleansing of Balfron Tower has not diminished since their poorly considered venture there with Poplar Harca and Wayne Hemingway in 2014, which led to Ollie Wainwright in The Guardian describing it as the “death knell for the legendary Balfron Tower”.

Maybe I should just take a moment to remind you that Owen Hopkins works for Soane Museum. The Commercial Director of Soane Museum is Xanthe Avanitakis who is on the board of Up Projects, alongside Paul Augarde, the Director of Placemaking for Poplar Harca.

The rhizome functions perfectly well, albeit in a somewhat genetically modified form skewed towards a property developer agenda, and like a rhizome, the complexity of the interconnectivities working to asset strip our community needs significant further research.

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Contingent liabilities for the people of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets (19)


This is why I am demanding, before it is too late and there is nothing left worth fighting for, that the Mayor of London (or perhaps one the candidates in the forthcoming Tower Hamlets mayoral elections) should call for and carry out an immediate, independent and full audit of Poplar Harca, including the development contracts for Chrisp Street Market, Balfron Tower as well as every other estate Harca have demolished or any other community that is in the process of being gentrified, or that has already been destroyed by the Poplar Harca social cleansing machine; and there are many.

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We need to know whether their operations are in the best interest of the people of Tower Hamlets or whether they are just serving the interests of banks, property developers and politicians, and Harca need to be held to account for the damage they have caused to our communities.

After all, the London Borough of Tower Hamlets has guaranteed to cover all liabilities and losses of Poplar Harca, using public funds.

I won’t hold my breath for an audit, but I will keep asking.

Rab Harling

14th April 2018


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Rab Harling on stage at the East End Film Festival, London. 14th April 2018. Picture courtesy of The Rainbow Collective.

References:

  1. The Rainbow Collective website: http://www.rainbowcollective.co.uk/
  2. Building a Movement, East End Film Festival:  http://www.eastendfilmfestival.com/programme-archive/action-housing-talks-screenings/
  3. Poplar Harca website: http://www.poplarharca.co.uk/
  4. Up Projects website http://www.upprojects.com/
  5. Rab Harling website http://rabharling.com/info/
  6. Telford Homes website   http://www.telfordhomes.london/developments/current
  7. Details on the President’s Club scandal involving Londonewcastle https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jan/24/guest-list-presidents-club-all-male-charity-gala
  8. Londonewcastle website http://londonewcastle.com/developments/balfron-tower/
  9. Charity tax fraudsters Bow Arts website http://www.bowsarts.com/
  10. Artist squares up to Regulator over “manifestly unreasonable” fundraising investigation https://www.artsprofessional.co.uk/news/exclusive-artist-squares-regulator-over-manifestly-unreasonable-fundraising-investigation
  11. V&A Lansbury Micro-museum website http://lansburymicromuseum.com/
  12. Marketing video for former social housing on the Aberfeldy Estate, E14 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vnir13hRgtA
  13. Paul Augarde’s entry on IMDB, the industry standard for film & TV credits http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0041776/?ref_=nv_sr_1
  14. Report of the trustees and unaudited financial statements for Up Projects https://tinyurl.com/y94kfanz
  15. Report of the trustees and unaudited financial statements for Up Projects https://tinyurl.com/y94kfanz
  16. Foundation for Future London website https://www.future.london/
  17. No link will be provided for this event until after it has taken place
  18. Wayne Hemingway’s ‘pop-up’ plan sounds the death knell for the legendary Balfron Tower, Olly Wainwright, The Guardian, 26th September 2014 https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/architecture-design-blog/2014/sep/26/wayne-hemingways-pop-up-plan-sounds-the-death-knell-for-the-legendary-balfron-tower
  19. Tower Hamlets Annual Financial Report 2012/2013 https://www.towerhamlets.gov.uk/Documents/Finance/Accounts-and-audit/Statement-of-Accounts-2012-13-Jan14.pdf

If only Balfron Tower could talk, if only we could see

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Balfron Tower (pic: @balfronsocial)


If only Balfron Tower could talk, if only we could see

A Balfron Social Club guest blog post by Stephen Pritchard


Time lapses.  Remembrances.  Lives once fixed, now in transit.  Different places.  Other spaces.

If only Balfron Tower could talk.

Each wall, window, walkway.  Every conduit, fixture, fitting, lock.  The underground garages.  The lifts.  The noticeboards.  Dispossessed.

The views.  People’s views.  Displaced.

If only we could see.

No filming.  No photography.

Fixed perspectives.  Fixed outlooks.

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No filming, no photography (pic: @etiennelefleur)

All the while, the City creeps nearer.  Beacons.  Warning signs.  Shiny neoliberal lights.  Precursors of forthcoming “redevelopment”.  Glass fronted.  Flimsy giants.  Harbingers of impending gentrification.  They are coming.  They will come.  They will erase generations, feast on the past, wipe clean past lives, past happiness, past hardships.  Brutal.

Call in the artists, the property guardians, dark soundtracks, bleak CGI mock ups trumpeting “We’re coming home, baby!”

Not yet.  Just Sitex doors.  Left possessions tipped in skips.  Locks.  For now.

Business suits, fluorescent-clad workers, white-shirted private security guards. Builders or destroyers?

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A Sitex door bars access to the former home of an elderly Balfron Tower leaseholder, bullied from his home through the courts with threats of a Compulsory Purchase Order (pic: @balfronsocial)

Balfron Tower was a refuge for its many social housing tenants.  Soon it will be another vacuous space filled with neoliberal lifestyle choice, as empty of lives, real lives, as the empty promises made by the local “housing regeneration and community association” and the luxury residential property developers.  A haven for thieving City bankers.  Left-empty overseas billionaire investments. Hedge fund safe bets.  Tax evasion.  Buy-to-leave. 

And now the last resident has gone, decanted to God knows where, they have wiped the soul from Balfron Tower.  It will never return.  They will make sure of it.  They have replaced people with assets for private investors, homes with a “new world” bereft of communities – another dead world of capital investment. A global world of shadowy deals and care-free exploitation.  Their world.

Cinema.  Launderette.  Play Room.  Garden Room.  Cocktail bar.  Goldfinger Archive.  Trunk Store. Treehouse.  What?  Social housing transformed into 1960s “design icon”, how lovely.  How incredibly ironic.  How to “unlock the potential for an unprecedented cast of stakeholders”.

So wrong.  So, so wrong.

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Up for the Yoga Room, down for the Music Room, design proposals for the Balfron Tower regeneration (Source: unknown)

And yet, Balfron Tower remembers its proud past.  Its residents will never forget.  Their ups and downs are cast in screed.  Their births and deaths, breakups and marriages haunt stairwells and walkways.  Lifts murmur songs from decades of everyday living.  Everyday hymns to everyone and no one.

Balfron Tower, like its past residents, remembers.  Together, they remember things heard and overheard; seen, unseen and overseen; touched and untouched.  Spoken, now muted, conversations.  Different people, living together high above London, through good and bad. Sharing.  Learning from one another.  Partying.  Playing.  Fighting.  Living.  Always living.

Inversion / Reflection shares little bits of some of these stories.  Resident’s lives. Balfron Tower’s life.  The film is not a crass product of socially engaged artists in the pay of profiteering property developers or housing associations hell bent on gentrification by a wryly smiling social art practice that paints a thinly disguised veil over gentrification.  It stands sensitive.  Understated.  Peaceful. Honest.  Proud.  A fitting commemoration of those displaced at the hands of unbridled gentrifiers who will, with their own rabid teeth, devour themselves eventually.  Cindy.  Gavin.  Felicity.  Shiraz. Evelyn.

Inversion/Reflection: What Does Balfron Tower Mean to You? A short film by Rab Harling

Balfron Tower.

It didn’t have to be this way.  Those involved didn’t need to exploit people. They didn’t have to lie. They didn’t have to socially cleanse.

This is not what Goldfinger planned.

He turns in his grave as capitalist greed stamps out the dying embers of our hopes and dreams for social housing.  Balfron Tower was and still is a symbol of our welfare state.  Built on optimism. Killed by selfishness.  Justice for all replaced by the dog-eat-dog world of possessive hyper-individualism and neoliberal capital accumulation by dispossession.  Systematic asset-stripping and land grabbing.

Balfron Tower is another battleground in a class struggle – a class war.  The rich elite may have temporarily taken control but one day we will assert our right to the city and we will take it back!

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A Balfron Social Club guest blog post by Stephen Pritchard 

@etiennelefleur

http://colouringinculture.org/

Balfron Social Club

Poplar

Turning Balfron Tower Inside Out

Balfron Tower, July 2015                                            pic: @balfronsocial

This guest blog post, by artist Rab Harling, is a transcript from his presentation to the “Social Injustice & Inequalities: ‘Race, Gender & Class’” conference at The Centre for Social Justice and Inequalities, Department of Sociology, University of Warwick on 10th July 2015.

Between February 2011 & February 2014, I was a resident of Ernö Goldfinger’s brutalist icon Balfron Tower in Tower Hamlets. Throughout this period, predominantly making connections through word-of-mouth, I set about capturing, on large format transparency film, from a singular viewpoint, a perspective from within each of my neighbour’s homes. By taking an identically situated photograph in as many of my neighbour’s homes as possible, I intended to deconstruct the form of the architecture of Balfron Tower, with my ultimate intention being to create an, as yet unrealised, photographic sculpture of the building in its geometrically deconstructed form: effectively turning Balfron Tower Inside out.

During this process I encountered a glimpse into the function of Balfron Tower and the realities of some of the lives occupying this Grade II listed, purpose-built social housing block; a block under attack from regeneration by those who claim to have the best interests of the community at heart. Balfron Tower is being regenerated. I believe that the proposed wholesale removal of social housing and its subsequent sale on the private market is not regeneration but social cleansing.

I will now play you a slideshow I made using approximately 40% of the material I captured, with a narration from Keith, who lived in Balfron Tower for 15 years between 1998-2013, before being relocated out of the borough, with no option to return to his home in the gentrified tower.

SCREENING of 

Inversion/Reflection: Turning Balfron Tower Inside Out

https://vimeo.com/104439481

(password: balfron)

Another five years of Conservative cultural policy finds us experiencing a culture-industry being shaped by powerful forces. In austere times public money for luxuries such as art must engage “the community”. The recent RSA and Warwick Commission report “Enriching Britain: Culture, Creativity and Growth” highlights “participation” as its key recurring feature.

But what happens when publicly funded arts organisational agenda conspire against grass-roots community creativity? Social restructuring is devastating London’s working-class communities, and artists are being co-opted and curated to participate in the PR.

Balfron Tower’s social housing tenants have now mostly been “decanted”. Commencing back in 2007 the buildings housing association owner started to split the community up, using a variety of nefarious and ethically redundant tactics. The community was then partly replaced mostly by young, short-term occupants and property guardians with insecure tenancies. A large number of the 146 flats were being rented to artists by a local “arts” organisation to serve as live / work spaces for artists.

This process is now commonly referred to as “artwash” and was being tactically and ruthlessly employed at Balfron Tower; a usually highly effective PR tool to be used as luxury flats replaced social housing; with artists paying £800 a month for the privilege of living and working in the tower.

Artists were, mostly unwittingly though some with enthusiastic complicity, being used to paper over cracks in the proposed privatisation of the tower. However, things did not exactly run to plan. Residents, already incensed by the loss of their homes and the appalling way they were being treated by the housing association, took exception to artists using their homes as the backdrop for their dystopian visions; constantly delayed by film crews occupying lifts and obstructing access and also very much aware that the ‘artwash’ was part of the gentrification process that was costing them their homes. This was not helped by the aggressive attitude towards them by the housing association and the arts organisation; an Arts Council England national portfolio organisation, an organisation that paradoxically sells itself as both a resource for emerging artists as well as an agency that uses artists to ‘regenerate’ neighbourhoods and force working class communities from their homes.

Welcome to Balfron Tower                                         pic: @rabharling

By late-2010 when I proposed my project to the “arts” organisation, a ban on art projects taking place in or around the building was already being aggressively enforced by the residents committee. There was no mention of this as I laid down a significant security deposit (which was never returned) on top of the £800 for a months rent. I was later told that they believed that I would give up and move on, something I witnessed so many other artists do after trying half-heartedly to get disinterested and often hostile people to participate in their projects.

Throughout the three years I was in Balfron Tower, I encountered parameters of aggressive cultural curation that were waging a neoliberal war on the working classes. Revenge evictions and intimidation were commonplace against artists that didn’t fit with the corporate brand, or expressed even the slightest critique, either through their work or in the media, both mainstream and social. Top-down art-led social restructuring was being ruthlessly foisted upon neighbourhoods and being generously funded by Arts Council England.

Meanwhile, behind the spectacle, social housing was being asset-stripped.

I believe that the use of artists as a smokescreen for the social cleansing of social housing is turning communities against artists and damaging a profession that like so many others in recent years, has been subjected to a bland, mono-cultural middle-class curation that is strangling creativity. Art has been reduced to a carefully curated spectacle and those that want to play must conform.

How can communities respond to art, and artists, as they are so often encouraged to do so, when artists have come to symbolize the devastation of their communities? How can the recent plethora of publicly funded reports such as the RSA and Warwick Commission report be taken as anything more than well meaning committee minded groupthink, somewhat detached from the implications the realities these policies are creating on the ground.

The result has been that artists are sadly increasingly seen as harbingers of the wrecking ball, or in the case of Balfron Tower, thanks to its protected heritage status, harbingers of impending Canary Wharf bankers, with little or no interest in the social heritage of their luxury, highly fashionable apartments.

Balfron Social Club

Poplar

14 July 2015