Artists in Housing: book review

Jessie Brennan: Regeneration!, HS Projects

Nathan Coley: To the Bramley Family of Frestonia, Anomie Publishing

Jessie Brennan, A Fall of Ordinariness and Light (The Enabling Power), 2014, Graphite on paper, 55 x 70 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Jessie Brennan, A Fall of Ordinariness and Light (The Enabling Power), 2014, Graphite on paper, 55 x 70 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

This is a tale of two housing estates; or, rather, two artists working within two housing estates. One estate is a well-known Brutalist behemoth, Robin Hood Gardens in East London, designed by Allison and Peter Smithson and completed in 1972. The crumbling estate has repeatedly failed to gain listed status and, as soon as the last tenants leave, is set to finally be demolished. What is going up in its place, eventually, is what has become the neoliberal landscape norm: mixed-use residential/retail schemes backed by private developers. The second estate, Silchester (with the catchy sub-title ‘More West’), is in West London near Ladbroke Grove; it is newly built, due to open by the time this goes to print with over a hundred new apartments, ‘including’, as the developer’s website claims, ‘some five-bedroom homes for social rent’. Out of each estate has come an artist’s project, and two subsequent medium-sized publications: Jessie Brennan’s Regeneration! and Nathan Coley’s to the Bramley Family of Frestonia. Both provide glimpses of artists attempting to engage with problems of what housing represents at a time of change – musing on social ideals, gentrification and historical models – but what role they each take within that offers two very different outcomes.

The main focus of Coley’s book is, as the title indicates, Frestonia, a neighbourhood of squatters who in the 1970s, facing eviction and demolition of their homes, famously adapted Freston Road to a country name, adopted en masse the surname of ‘Bramley’ from an adjacent road and attempted to secede from the UK as an independent nation. Half of Coley’s publication is dedicated to this story, with photographs from neighbourhood meetings, street performances and its art space, the Car Breakers Art Gallery. This is supplemented by documents such as the group’s application to the UN for membership and several short contextualising texts, feeding us facts including that the Frestonians had their own postage and gave visas to visitors. The most relevant part of the story of a communal uprising here seems to be its coda: more practically and prosaically they also managed to form a housing co-operative, which maintains ownership and control of the houses to this day. It is in the middle of the book that the real reason we’re here is finally – at least visually – disclosed (although never outright explained anywhere in the book), breaking the black-and-white daze of the archival Frestonian haze with a set of harsh colour images of a black-and-gold sculpture of a semi-abstract tree, one large version sprouting out of the top of a building and dozens of smaller versions in production. The only hint given is one caption: ‘When each of the 112 new tenants moves into the housing development, they are given a small steel and gold leaf sculpture as a house warming present.’ The book then quickly moves on to a history of the Bramley apple. As it turns out, this interest in Frestonia, the Bramley family, and the Bramley apple are all attempts to be playful with something as simple and serious as an artist’s commission for a new housing estate. The justification is literally by proxy: the Silchester estate is just around the corner from Freston Road. Consequently, to the Bramley Family is filled with interesting facts that feel like they are attempting to distract us from the actual transaction of, firstly, a rooftop public sculpture and, secondly, a set of smaller replicas given to new residents. While the book itself provides great archival material, it feels like justification for the artist’s decision to act as a sort of enabler for the rampant and relentless housing developments across London, if not the UK.

Nathan Coley, to the Bramley family of Frestonia book, 2015. Image courtesy the artist.

Nathan Coley, to the Bramley family of Frestonia book, 2015. Image courtesy the artist.

While Coley’s project implies a sense of bestowal, the artist gifting something to the residents, Brennan’s Regeneration! is based on conversations with the former and outgoing residents of Robin Hood Gardens, built from the ground up. This is a carefully assembled and considered book, hosting a set of voices that raise critical questions about the history, direction and fate of social housing in the UK. Brennan similarly starts with archival material, giving us old photographs and ads for the Smithson’s much anticipated structure, but she seems more interested in capturing the contradictions of the place. Like the drawings that make up a portion of the book, a series of pencil place-mat rubbings under the collective title Conversation Pieces, Brennan uses the publication as a point for dialogue to begin. A set of five interviews with residents are printed here, along with photos of the estate by former resident Abdul Kalam, who at one point describes his own sense of cognitive dissonance, having originally hated living in the Poplar estate and then subsequently coming across a book claiming the unique importance of the buildings: ‘who’s right then?’ he asks.

An essay by Owen Hatherley gives an insightful historical background to the estate’s impending demolition, beginning with Poplar’s left-wing council in the 1920s attempting to get richer London boroughs to pay for low-income housing, through to the establishment of the no-planning-application-needed Enterprise Zone in the nearby Docklands in the 1980s. Doomed architectural artefacts seem to attract artists’ projects as heralds of their destruction, harbingers of gentrification, and Robin Hood Gardens is no exception. But Brennan’s Regeneration! manages to be conversant, ambivalent and elegiac without moralising. Yes, the estate may no longer be ‘fit for use’ and perhaps should now be torn down, but the questions coming out of the book lead us to keep asking fit for whose ‘use’.

In both Brennan and Coley’s projects, the artists attempt to archive pasts that have all but disappeared, and both would most likely agree with Hatherley’s statement in Regeneration! that ‘even the mildest of social democracy is now considered utopian’. The difference, though, lies in the roles they choose to take; for Brennan, it is to continue to create discussion about what form we want our cities to take; for Coley, it seems he is there to sweeten a deal that has already been done.

Originally published in Art Monthly No. 393, February 2016

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