It was by accident. I was standing at the corner of Victoria Street and Vauxhall Bridge Road taking photographs of the Nova Building. The lights changed to red. I was aware of the a woman standing to the right of me. She was wearing a lilac anorak and black trousers and lilac coloured shoes and a face mask. All of this could be prefaced with she was wearing a cheap lilac coloured anorak and cheap lilac coloured shoes. Because she was. She stood beside me in the cold holding on to her shopping trolley.
I’m not sure where the voice came from but it was clearly mine.
‘Can I ask you a question…what do you think of that building?’ I indicated towards the Nova Building. Part of Landsec’s two million square feet of commercial property in the area. It contributes to their asset value of £7.3 billion.
She looked at me with lively brown eyes. She had a very no-nonsense persona.
‘Not much’, she said, in a voice which provided exactly the right intonation. Those words and the way she said them could deflate global stock markets.
I could have cheered. I don’t know how much Landsec spends on marketing, branding, social media campaigns, press relations and image management but it’s clearly not enough or far too much.
Suddenly the character of the space changed; it became a public space in which the public could discuss. I carried out a straw poll of about 20 people. I would like to say that everyone said, ‘I don’t like it’ but it was more nuanced and interesting than that. Some gave one word answers, others engaged in quite long conversations. Two of those conversations were particularly philosophical and intimate.
‘Can I ask you a question, what do you think of that building?’
‘Don’t like it’
‘It’s taken out the skyline’
‘I liked it around here before even if it was a bit tatty’
‘waste of space’
‘creative’ ( I got the sense they felt they should say that)
‘beautiful’ – but it was a one word answer given in a hurry. I got the impression the person was trying to be clever. And besides, in what other realm of social interaction do we allow people to say stuff without challenging it if we disagree? I’m biased but it is not a bias based on money power.
Before I could speak, they had crossed the road. I wanted to shout ‘I don’t believe you’, in the spirit of Bob Dylan responding to the heckler declaring ‘Judas’ at the Manchester Free Trade Hall when he went electric.
‘Not too bad’
‘the lines are nice’
‘doesn’t stick out too much’
An America couple walking a dog disagreed with each other. The man was positive but as soon as there was a break in his flow, the woman interjected and said ‘they should bring them all down’
‘Bring all of what down?’ I asked
‘All these glass towers, there’s far too many of them. There shouldn’t be anything more than thirteen stories’.
‘Another glass building and they’re all the same’.
I walked around the same 100 yards of Vauxhall Bridge Road. Stood outside the Apollo Theatre for some time waiting for a bus to move so I could take a photograph of the building itself. The driver didn’t seem in any hurry to move. He sat on the top deck reading a newspaper. I watched two men throwing rubbish into a bin cart. Two construction workers were taking a break sitting on the concrete steps of a block of flats.
Standing still for periods of time is a good way to explore a building. The detail – if there is any – begins to emerge. And with some buildings an artistry becomes apparent rather than just a first impression. A woman walks past pulling a suitcase on wheels behind her. She wears a green coat and golden colour boots and crosses the road. Curtains blowing out of an open window. A line of cars moves south. The bus driver is looking serious.
I move a few yards down the street and talk to some building workers and ask them if the row of empty houses behind the hoarding are going to be demolished. They don’t know, they are working on the new-build next door. It’s harder talking to a group of people than one to one. They are European migrant labour but I don’t ask where from. It feels too personal and intruding. I talk to the younger of the group. The others are older and their faces are older still, covered in building site dust. They wear hard hats even when sitting on the pavement smoking, and flimsy high-vis vests and grey track suit bottoms covered in construction dirt.
There is a surprising amount of empty property around when you start to look for it. Is it surprising? There is even an office block from 1997 which is standing empty but there is even more emptiness when you stand on tip toe or find a ledge to perch on and peer through unwashed windows. The reason why there is so much empty space next to new build is not just because it is the ‘wrong sort of space’ but because there are greater profits to be made in all the glass slabs than the refurbishment of existing buildings. The way tax and VAT are structured all help this process but the main driver is the voracious expansion of capital. It cannot expanded into the existing space fast enough so it must constantly expand into new space. None of this is driven by social needs.
I initially thought that Vauxhall Bridge Road would be a drudge, something I ought to do rather than want to do. But it’s not like that at all. There is blue in the sky. The sky changes and wisps of clouds move more quickly. There is much to see. And when I get home I realise that although I have taken a lot of photographs and made pages full of notes it’s not enough. Standing in one place can produce a lot of stuff.
I had a friend called P who lived in a housing cooperative in Stoke Newington. I would call round to see him and say, ‘Hello P- what are you up to’.
‘Well have you been up to anything else?’
‘No, just sitting’.
He had a single book case full of Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Zola, Dickens, Collins, Eliot and more. When he was hard up he would take these treasured books to the second hand bookshop in Church Street. Tim the owner never sold them. It was more like a pawn shop arrangement, When he had some money he would go and redeem them. There wasn’t much other furniture in that flat apart from a bed, armchair and tiny radio. One night coming back from a party we switched it on at 4am and from this cheap piece of technology emerged the sound of The Fall and Fantastic Life.
Sitting, standing, hanging out. It’s not just about walking around. Doing nothing can be surprisingly productive. If I wasn’t doing nothing it would have been impossible to notice the washing line. It was as subversive as a revolutionary Red Flag. There was something gloriously human and brilliant about this. It had a feel of raw, proletarian defiance. You can stick your tenancy agreement and your arms length management organisation up your backside. We are drying our washing on a sunny windy London Saturday early afternoon.
An hour or two later I’m at the river, looking over the flood wall. A line of buildings. Is it deliberate that they have to pretend to be from some future no one really wants? There is no colour, no window boxes, no curtains blowing out of an open window, no hanging baskets, a lack of silly kitsch objects, no hand written signs with the words, ‘Support Key Workers’, ‘Support Delivery Workers’, ‘Support Care Workers’ , ‘thank you postie’, ‘Support Truck Drivers’, Love (heart shape) NHS.
It was lovely to be able to go into the Tate Britain without a QR code or pre-arranged booking form. There was a sense of pleasure about this which was shared between the visitors and the workers. And regardless of what they do, everyone who works in the Tate Britain contributes to culture. In that sense they are all cultural workers. The woman who checked me in and said I needed to get a free ticket, the woman who was managing the queue who talked to me for so long, the woman who sorted out my free ticket.
The women who was looking after the queue explained what was going on.
‘It’s just so nice to be able to come in and spent an hour looking at a couple of paintings’.
‘It’s the spontaneity’, she said, looking at me so closely with her eyes above her mask.
‘The spontaneity is what I think we’ve all missed’.
There is so much warmth and camaraderie around us at times. Is this new, something the pandemic has helped to create? I sometimes feel that a large dose of the viciousness from the government is deliberately aimed to stop this basic ground level solidarity from spreading and becoming some more, something more political.
These cultural workers – sorry, low paid, unskilled workers – invited me into the most extraordinary world. I took the lift. I only just caught it and spoke to the woman within who extolled the benefits of being a member. Just the two of us in a lift in the Tate Britain chit chat small talk as if we had known each other for years.
It wasn’t deliberate but I needed to sit down. I had been walking, writing, note-taking, talking, photographing, interviewing and thinking for several hours as well as standing still. It would be good to sit down. A big black leather armchair opposite the cloakroom would do nicely. I ate my provisions and appreciated the luxury of just sitting. And then the senses started to work again. I take in my surroundings. I’m sitting, just sitting a few feet away from the main cloakroom.
There is no natural light here. It is all electronic and yet it is a bright winter’s day. There is a constant noise from the hand dryers in the toilets and an endless clip clop of people walking past. There are two women who appear to be taking turns in managing the various processes. There is no sitting down because there is nowhere for them to sit in their working space. They collect and return coats, bags, suitcases, buggies, prams, bags of shopping, fold up bicycles, a red plastic child’s scooter. In any break between dealing with bags and coats and general enquiries they disinfect trays and counter surfaces. Both women speak excellent English although it is clearly not their first language.
I don’t want them to feel I’m watching them so pretend I’m waiting for someone. Then I begin to believe I am waiting for someone. And if I was, who would I like to be waiting for? That takes me off in a daydream and now I genuinely am waiting for someone. After an hour or so they still haven’t turned. How could they, there had never been an invite. But the possibility remained of a chance encounter.
Some mysterious thread pulled me from the armchair into the galleries. When I momentarily thought about stopping it gently tugged me. It led me past paintings and sculptures but would not let me stop. It finally delivered me to ‘The Interior of a Great House’ by JWM Turner. This was the most enigmatic and intriguing space discovered all day. Colours of gold, yellow, green, copper, some blue. Such a contrast to the cold indifference of endless smoked glass and brushed steel. Turner creates an undefined space, one in which suggests potential instead of banality. It is a space to be absorbed in, a space with its own dynamic aesthetic tension which it endlessly reproduces. There are few obvious edges and it is not clear what the shapes on the floor might be. Everything is dissolving, all that is solid melts into air. The variety and intensity of the light varies. It is not the homogenised white light of capital. The painting sparks ideas, emotions, possibilities.
Fantastic Life indeed.
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