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

Brutalism [redacted] – Social Art Practice and You

It has come to our attention that a new and ‘innovative’ art practice is coming to the area. It is an organisation that engages in… wait for it: ‘Social Art Practice’.

This post is not about this particular organisation, it about the very existence of such organisations. It is about the artists, theorists, and community workers who are contextually obliged to work in this area of art practice. It is about the times we live in, social cleansing in the UK, and the ways in which policy makers and developers are colluding to expropriate art practice for their own ends. It is about how talented and well meaning people are fed through an art world, increasingly co-opted by their very own educations, to foster and facilitate the process of social cleansing. It is about the ways in which councils, developers, and the government are using the word ‘art’ to create chaos and homelessness, forging policy and a community aesthetic that actually implicates the very people it displaces.

Social practice is the new ‘relational’, an art practice with a long history. Art education, generally, has become increasingly aimed towards that which ‘engages’, art that generates ‘dialogue’, art that allows for a participatory medium, art that offers and creates a ‘desired path’ for both practitioner and the community he or she is working in. From galleries to grass level projects, the practice of art has become ‘socially engaged’, ‘participatory’, and is designed to foster ‘social change’.

All very well, we say. Art and its practice is cyclical and reflects the needs and desires of its times. However, it must be recognized that our current ‘times’ have been co-opted at every turn. The ‘practice’ of our everyday lives is channeled through commodified movements around and within our city. Our private lives are curated from without, and it is near impossible to resist the puppet string, let alone recognize it exists.

There is a two-fold problem when it comes to art practice in our time: firstly, universities and institutions themselves are increasingly coming under pressure to conform to and woo corporate funding. Austerity cuts have seen the field of education funneled through practice that ‘benefits’ society, in a way that is measured out by successful funding grants, bursaries, and transfer payments.

The two-fold aspect in play is that austerity and government pull back on funding for education, the arts in particular, means that much of the money available is private, and or publicly funded with corporate interest at play. This is reflected in the increasingly managerial university or institution. This is reflected in the ways in which projects and individuals are funded. This is reflected in the production of the ‘art professional’, the ‘art policy maker’, the ‘artist manager’, the ‘head of creativity and innovation’. This is reflected also in how an emerging artist who truly wants to engage in their practice in any meaningful way either becomes completely marginalized and unable to work, or they join the club to make ends meet. The ‘cultural sector’ job becomes the prize.

There you have the perfect storm: the birth of the community based Social Art practitioner, feeling lucky to get that first commission, that first residency, that first step in the ‘art world’. The community based Social Art practitioner, is ready made, pop up, and funded by the lottery, in partnership with councils and developers. The Social Art practitioner is placed in sites of contestation, and asked to do the footwork of those who really are creating concrete social change: the social cleansers.

The material conditions of these sites of contestation are complicated, and there is a blind field. While social policy makers sit in premium locations like the RSA to discuss and tweak a ‘response’ to (response being a code word for ‘how do we talk about this so it doesn’t look so bad?) community ‘problems’, real artists that struggle to exist economically and spiritually are not invited to the table. They are outsiders, and are excluded. That is until they are ‘commissioned’ by the agents of ‘social cleansing’ to go into the community and ‘work’ with residents.

There is a double narrative in play here in London and Poplar, a particularly difficult site for policy makers to navigate simply because the architecture itself is literally ‘hot property’. We are seeing a revival in appreciation for Brutalist architecture generally. Specifically, Balfron Tower, its history and its architect render it materially necessary. Unlike other social housing sites in and around the UK, Balfron Tower must stand; demolition and the erasure of its bricks, mortar, and social history cannot be achieved.  It is to be socially cleansed, and we make no bones about the actual desires and wishes of the community; that there is maintained a minimum of 50% social housing on the site. However, as Poplar HARCA systemically clears the site of its original community, it is replacing the real community with a community of artists. It is using the Ă©lan of ‘art’ to sell up, to create a ‘new and vibrant’ community that justifies the huge price tickets on developments nearby.

Balfron Tower is literally ‘hot property’, prime real estate, simply because it has been stolen from the community and replaced by a purposefully curated arts community. Increasingly, the terms and conditions of this new and innovative community are that they conform to an aesthetic. Their work and their projects are checked for their degree of acceptability against a backdrop of community decimation. Those that do not conform meet with intimidation and eviction. It is risky for these struggling and emergent talents to speak out, to produce truly politically engaged art. There are some severely unhappy artists facing homelessness, and or giving up on their art careers altogether if they do what is their trade: produce work that reveals that which lies beneath the surface. They have been forced to produce and reproduce a surface veneer, and are changing how regeneration looks. They are scared to speak out. But there are rumblings echoing in the drying rooms and the lift shaft, mysteriously stripped of their machinery.

Enter the clowns: the eminent arrival of Social Art Practice. Funded by its partners in both government and UnPopular HARCA, their aim is self-generated. Their aims are: “engaging more citizens creatively; providing viable options for artistic employment; and initiating positive social change through ‘self-direction’, ‘wellbeing’, and ‘community feeling’.”

We have seen this time and again at other sites, now long since demolished. Housing developers, and indeed socially engaged, council funded arts organisations use a similar language. There is a new currency: ‘social capital’ and ‘enterprise’. ‘Social practice’ and ‘place-making’ are the new policy buzzwords.  Planning and policy is being forced through this language, and it changing how regeneration looks, and presented up as ‘grassroots’. All the while, meaningful grass-root community led practice is evicted, torn down, decanted.

We here at Balfron Social Club are loathe to criticize the organisation, or the people who must do this work, as we are more than aware that they too, are pawns in a much larger game, being moved about a chess board created by high finance and a neo-liberal agenda for ‘social change’ that does not have room for any of us. ‘Community feeling’ is a precursor for decanting. If we can all feel good about our pop up art, our participation in dialogue, if we can just be kept that busy
when the eviction notice hits the floor maybe, just maybe we will play along.

But no, the ‘positive social change’ being suggested by this new arrival is nothing short of a rebranding exercise and an attempt at damage control. We at Balfron Social Club are not fooled by the arrival of an ‘arts’ practice, sponsored by the very organisation that effectively swept through the estates, asset stripping as they went.

There was a time that housing was seen as a right. Now it has been created in the image of asset management. This is being curated by policy makers and planners, through development companies, councils, and rebranded through arts practice. There is an undercurrent at Poplar, it is getting louder and there are some very unhappy people.

Brutal, indeed.

Balfron Social Club

Poplar
13 April 2015