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Strategies Against Estate Agents? On Gentrification & The Avant-Garde
Joe Kennedy , August 22nd, 2013 06:50

The recent London Contemporary Music Festival, held in a Peckham car park, provoked a debate about the role of leftfield art in deprived areas. Joe Kennedy examines some of the knotty debates around gentrification, the arts, and class in Britain today

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Two years ago this week, I moved to Peckham from Norfolk. I didn't really choose Peckham – the location came about more or less accidentally, and I had no idea that the area was undergoing gentrification. Indeed, with the exception of one or two streets in the vicinity of Peckham Rye, the large common where William Blake saw angels and which inspired Muriel Spark to write a subtly brilliant novel, there wasn't that much evidence that this was taking place.

More recently, however, and particularly since the opening of an Overground spur connecting Peckham to Hackney, there's been a tangible shift in the cultural atmosphere of SE15. It seems that not a week goes by without an empty shop being refitted as a Jay Rayner-pleasing restaurant catering for the deep-of-pocket; meanwhile, the fashionably wasted pour in for club nights at the Bussey Building and Canavans. This shift provides broad sociological context for non-profit arts organisation Bold Tendencies' staging of the recent London Contemporary Music Festival in the multi-storey car park off Rye Lane.

For the last few summers, BT have been running arts events in the space, and hope to eventually convert it into a 'creative hub' open all the year round. Their hosting of the LCMF – also managed by an NFP arts commissioning agency, Sound Four – suggested a push towards making this ambition a reality, and performers and composers of the calibre of Glenn Branca and Tony Conrad duly arrived to provide eight nights of avant-garde music against the backdrop of the city spreading away to the north. What I saw of the concerts was impressive, especially given that tickets were free: a fired-up Branca leading the UK premiere of new work Twisting in Space during a thunderstorm, electronic drones harmonising with passing trains on the first Sunday afternoon, and an exceptional collaboration between Conrad and Jennifer Walshe the same evening.

Nevertheless, various controversies have emerged around the LCMF. Some critics expressed concern that the venue was acoustically unsuited to the kinds of music – including many durational pieces working with minimal volumes – programmed. Others have mumbled that not all of the pieces performed still seem particularly radical in 2013. However, the most provocative debate was initiated by Ben Beaumont-Thomas in the Guardian. This review argued that, while there much to applaud about the festival, the choice of Philip Corner's Piano Activities, in which the titular instrument is literally destroyed, pointed to a wider lack of political conscience on the part of the organisers. Beaumont-Thomas contended that "Smashing and violating this instrument that gave so much over its life, at an (admittedly free) event high above one of the most deprived areas in London, is indulgence bordering on immorality". The implication here seems to be that certain privileges need to be checked around the matter of aesthetic extremism (if one can really call a fifty-year-old piece 'extremist') being staged in a community as marked by socio-economic inequalities as Peckham.

This leads, inevitably, to certain questions about the role of experimental art in the wider scheme of gentrification. King's College-based sociologist Tim Butler, who specialises in urban geography and regeneration projects in inner London, has proposed optimistically that the flourishing of the arts in deprived areas need not be seen (or need not be seen solely) in terms of broader economic patterns linked to housing prices which lead ultimately to the displacement of communities by moneyed newcomers. For Butler, art projects in areas like Brixton and London Fields reflect a middle-class attempt to end, rather than further, social segregation: this is, he suggests, perhaps a 'logical outcome of the good faith perhaps implied by the ascetic liberal consciousness.'

In Britain 2013, however, it can often be hard to sustain belief in either the 'ascetic liberal consciousness' or the notion that it implies 'good faith'. Many apparent gestures of ethical conscience make claims to social legitimacy which are at best spurious, while the Big Society, which is styled as a democratising force, operates to consolidate wealth for certain groups while excusing reductions of funding for services essential to the economically vulnerable. In the context of Peckham, Bold Tendencies and the LCMF, alarm bells start to ring when one notes that the Evening Standard report paraphrases Hannah Barry, Bold Tendencies' founder, as saying that the project 'is an embodiment of the Big Society'. Indeed, all the memes of Cameron-era fake DIY are there – cheerful job-creation estimates, corporate sponsorship and bonhomous affirmations of the capacity of 'gigs' and 'poetry readings' to instantiate social change.

Bearing this scepticism in mind, it's also important to think about how the critique of art as a component of gentrification might itself have some reactionary underpinnings. Such a position is potentially haunted by the assumption that the people of (say) Peckham are inherently uninterested in the avant-garde. Now, I'm unwilling to make determinate claims about how many 'genuine' locals were present at the LCMF performances and, certainly when I attended, the audience was predominantly white and blinged up with all the accoutrements of middle-class cultural capital. This is not to say, however, that to be working-class is to be uninterested in difficult art of the kind on display in the car park. Moreover, the implication that this is the case – that the simple Peckhamites just want that knackered old piano for school assemblies – carries with it the impression of cultural capital being accumulated to, and consolidated by, Butler's 'liberal ascetic consciousness'.

This is a longstanding problem in Britain. The poetry we learn in school tends towards the banal and paraphrasable (think Larkin or Duffy) because (liberal) middle-class curriculum setters have continually returned to a notion of 'relevance' which resists the idea that kids from council estates might find that T.S. Eliot or Ezra Pound speak to them. The experimental poet and critic Andrew Duncan covers this in some detail in his polemical The Failure of Conservatism in Modern British Poetry, coming to the conclusion that it ultimately represents an attempt on the part of the middle class to ring-fence an area of culture – the 'difficult' bit – for themselves. Some find this argument paranoid, but it's telling that our broadsheets still tend to regard 'authentic' working-class art through the paradigm of 1950s social realism and Not Letting The Bastards Grind You Down.

Against this foible of the British cultural imagination, it's instructive to consider just how much of the UK's experimental art since World War Two has been made by practitioners from backgrounds that can in no way be considered privileged. Indeed, Derek Bailey, one of the foremost members of the free improvisation scene that came to prominence in the late 1960s, was the son of a Sheffield barber and found his way into radical music by playing guitar in nightclub bands. Likewise, B.S. Johnson, arguably postwar Britain's most uncompromising experimental novelist, was a working-class evacuee who left school at sixteen. As for poetry, the list of avant-garde writers who grew up in at least relatively poor environments includes Tom Pickard, Tom Raworth, Peter Riley and Brian Catling. The supposition that it's only the wealthy and so-called 'educated' who have a stake in the leftfield is a dangerous one to make.

The debate around gentrification, then, can lack nuance on both sides. Advocates of regeneration tend to be too hasty in their claims that 'cultural hubs' and arts festivals can, as the saying goes, 'breathe life' into deprived areas. Against this, the belief that avant-garde work is a purely middle-class concern brings with it its own set of assumptions, and these also need to be challenged. When all is said and done, a better way to help inner-city communities maintain their identities would be a tighter regulation of the property market – rent controls can help a working-class family keep close to their roots far better than a blanket resistance to incursions by experimental artists. In this case, the finger needs to be pointed at policy makers and councils rather than at straw men.

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Minty Fresh
Aug 22, 2013 10:58am

Its not so much about ensuring that the arts can flourish as part of regeneration with everyone having access, these days, its about ensuring that people on low-average incomes, or members of a community who have lived in areas for generations can still afford the basic right of shelter and a roof over their heads in the capital.

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Armchair something
Aug 22, 2013 11:36am

I think it's telling that the London rental market is so inflated that even the gentrifiers increasingly can't afford to gentrify.

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Aug 22, 2013 11:39am

That restaurant you pejoratively refer to serves some the the tastiest, most resaonably priced food I've ever eaten. I'd highly recommend it for a treat.

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Aug 22, 2013 12:03pm

In reply to Renrag:

Reasonably priced!? Are you on 40K a year?

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Aug 22, 2013 12:12pm

In reply to h.tazer:

£70 between 4 people icnluding a bottle of wine and two beers... seems pretty resonale to me

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Aug 22, 2013 1:25pm

Good piece. One gripe: 'disinterested'is more or less a synonym for 'unbiased'. You cannot be 'disinterested' In something. The word you seek is 'uninterested'!

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Joe K
Aug 22, 2013 2:29pm

In reply to Rahul:

Cheers for that, Rahul. Half-asleep when I wrote that - should be changed now.

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Joe K
Aug 22, 2013 2:29pm

In reply to Minty Fresh:

I completely agree - that's the point I make at the end, in fact.

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Joe K
Aug 22, 2013 2:45pm

In reply to Renrag:

I walked past it the other day and looked at the menu. Then I thought 'that's pricey'. Maybe I mean 'deeper of pocket than me'.

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David Gerard
Aug 22, 2013 7:45pm

What you're after is "Hey Dude" by New Waver.

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Aug 22, 2013 9:24pm

1. I don't believe that people should smash up pianos in the name of the avant garde. I'm OK with Jerry Lee Lewis types doing it. Weird. Vivre le neanderthal.
2. Larkin is more than banal and paraphrasable.
3. I'm from a council estate and T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound don't speak to me.
4. Point 2 and especially 3 don't make me an argument for liberal middle-class curriculum setters. My argument would be that experimentalism can be good. But not T.S. Eliot. I'd argue that he's hardly experimental, in fact. Writing from the upper middle class that's critically approved by the upper middle class by definition can't be experimental enough, according to me. They can therefore keep it. There's a good chance that many people on council estates reject the stuff simply because they recognise, for all its play with form, its lack of ambition, rather than they're not exposed to it enough.
5. I love your articles. This one's particularly well balanced, and the conclusion is right to point at practical housing solutions as the pertinent issue. I really hope I get round to looking into some of the poets that you list, from Tom Pickard on.

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Big Jim
Aug 22, 2013 9:49pm

In reply to Renrag:

Yes mate, so reasonable that im sure the locals who run the buissnesses surrounding it are barely out of there... bargain britain

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Aug 22, 2013 11:51pm

Excellent piece.

Peter Schjeldahl for the New Yorker a few weeks ago had some interesting & relevant thoughts on Hirschhorn's Gramsci Monument (an installation/complex in the middle of a housing project in the Bronx). Hirschhorn employed project residents to build the structure and will give them the components after it closes.

This piece's points about the danger of patronising locals notwithstanding, LCMF's Twitter thing with Ben Beaumont-Thomas at the Guardian (merely thinking about doing something positive for one's community is "a bit Daily Mail" - because obviously cynicism is the fastest route to artistic credibility, right guys?) showed up the organiser as a right cunt, really.

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Aug 23, 2013 10:51am

Only in Britain will you get people trying to declare a poet 'for' a certain class or other. If you are literate, all poetry is for you. That's how it works. Everything else is sheer snobbism, or its reverse.

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Joe K
Aug 23, 2013 10:57am

In reply to aaron.:

I think I see where you're coming from, Aaron, but I have to take issue with the statement 'If you're literate, all poetry is for you'. I'm pretty sure I'm literate, but there are many, many poets (Larkin, Duffy, Don Paterson, nearly everyone published by Faber nowadays) whose work I would like to see taken out of libraries, bookshops and homes and used as landfill when bypasses are being built.

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Aug 23, 2013 11:12am

In reply to Joe K:

Haha. Well, you know. Cultural capital is easier to attain for most than the real fungible stuff. The idea (expressed above) that people from council estates cannot read and appreciate Eliot or Pound riles me. If you have access to a public library (or more like just 'the Internet' thesedays) then your intellect can be as upwardly (or downwardly) mobile as you like. Quoth the man, Meades: roots are for vegetables. Anyway this isn't directly relevant to the article (which is very good)-- just a bug bear. Whereas avant-garde culture can imply a 'bar of entry', that bar is not economic; gentrification is more a brute economic fact than locals being ostracized by naff conceptual art.

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Aug 24, 2013 3:31pm

There's an interesting mirroring here with the last ever LMC festival where Jem Finer destroyed a piano at the then newly opened Cafe Oto. Dalston wasn't quite the same in 2008.

The LMC was closing down and disbanding which made the performance all the more poignant.

Another point about Peckham is that it was becoming gentrified long before Franks Cafe & the Bussey opened. The council were giving out grants in conservation areas etc. in the 90s.

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Prince Alla
Aug 24, 2013 9:32pm

In reply to Renrag:

I walked past the material shop that existed in the space that that restaurant now stands in, (It also shares the building with the sunday painter gallery) every day and saw the face of the old lady that ran it get progressively miserable every day for a few months, until one day the shutters were down and there was a notice pinned up saying the stock was seized etc as she couldn't pay her rent anymore.

Now you can go in there and pay £2 for bread and butter...

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Aug 24, 2013 9:34pm

In reply to Tom:

the council are active in trying to get buzzy young businesses into the area, regardless of whether there are already businesses there in the places it wants to buzz up.

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Dark Peak
Aug 27, 2013 1:39am

If you find Philip Larkin, a reactionary old goat he may be, banal and paraphrasible then the fault is with you. Not only that, his early work is clearly devoted to Eliot, and though he'd stray into critiquing modernism I can't help but read some his affinity for jazz into some of his oft-considered sober verses. Furthermore, as a council estate kid at a comprehensive I can tell you straight as a die that we got Larkin and Heaney and not Duffy but WC Williams and Pound (the latter two more as mind-expansion exercises rather than core curriculum things but they provoked discussion) and all the greats of yore (Keats and Sidney and Aphra Behn) to boot. Maybe it's a shame that social realism is the only megaphone the working-class is afforded but given the choice I'd rather show the relationship between person and economic circumstance in the highest contrast of black and white as opposed to twatting a piano in the name of hurting the establishment.

That said I'm all for the construction of decent quality affordable homes, controlling rent and buy-to-let, you'd have to be a massive steamer not to.

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Wellington Bellis
Sep 6, 2013 10:14am

Can somebody explain to me why the current residents of Peckham deserve to live there more than the people who are "gentrifying" it?

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