This is an abandoned film that was being shot from the Mourne Mountains to the city streets of Belfast from 2003-2008.
There was a narrative thread:
A student who came from a farming background becomes a political activist and drug dealer. Under a shroud of mystery, they are reported missing. One year on, we pick up the narrative, as a family member, ex-bobby, recreates their last known movements. Murder, suicide or a staged death to start a new life?
Audio from a lecture room:
"It has been argued that there is no fundamental difference between fiction and history.
What we know about Julius Caesar - Et tu, Brute? or "καὶ σὺ, τέκνον"
Is derived from a long catalogue of narrative forms;
Storytelling about him that has been rewritten by each generation.
We know as much about Caesar as we know about Molly Bloom.
Something is real but not necessarily what the historians are telling us.
Your man, Derrida, said: "il n'y a pas de hors-texte."
There is nothing outside the text and we should add mobile texting.
All our lives are made up of texts that also function as personal anecdotes.
This is not necessarily true, as obviously, somethings are true;
That ghoulish head skating past the window right now,
The underclass who face poverty and premature death
Or the student loan and its implications for your survival;
All these represent aspects of the real world.”
Images are now presented as open-ended, encouraging the viewer to replay and reconfigure, making up their own story, characters or mood in a variation of a black and white silent film.
The Metamorphosis of Vine to Wine
Charcoal, 78" x 57"
"Three bowls do I mix for the temperate: one to health, which they empty first; the second to love and pleasure; the third to sleep. When this bowl is drunk up, wise guests go home. The fourth bowl is ours no longer, but belongs to violence; the fifth to uproar; the sixth to drunken revel; the seventh to black eyes; the eighth is the policeman's; the ninth belongs to biliousness; and the tenth to madness and the hurling of furniture."
From the play Semele or Dionysus by Eubulus, c. 375 BC
I never knew my grandfather, on the Greek side, but am named after him, Constantinos;
His nickname on the island was Barba Chedeli.
He cleared all the stones from the valley to grow crops that were sold at the market.
Built his own house, furnace and wine press where grapes were crushed underfoot.
Drinking in moderation, but enough to loosen the poetics of song and dance.
In the face of war and famine, he was quite simply, glass half full.
I thought I knew my father, a Pole.
But he could never talk about the war and famine that exiled him to England.
Vodka was never enough to loosen the poetics of song and dance.
He loved me but I don't know if he was ever truly contented.
No words in any language could quench his half-empty thirst.
The mist drifts down the vineyard and into the corridors of the mind.
This is the story of four bowls plus one and four.
Drinking rituals executed with no particular rhyme or reason, beginning or end.
An Existential compulsion.
Top, left to right: Ruin of house built by Konstantinos Christofis, oven and wine press
Bottom: Valley of rocks cleared for cultivation of crops, Oinousses
Musical refugee as the city of Smyrna burns
24x20" charcoal 2009
A cafe in Smyrna where a Greek lad brazenly sings about killing and raping the enemy;
And as he staggers home, drunk, after closing hours, a knife is plunged into his stomach.
He dies in the arms of his sister asking for a glass of water.
The heavens finally open to provide relief to the unseasonal temperatures.
The family are sharing a heady brew, performing the last rites with a night vigil.
Tomorrow they will gather their strength to bury the elder.
But the stomach of the corpse starts to rumble and the children laugh, contagiously.
They and the dead have not eaten any food in three days.
The radio broadcasts convey the indifference and desperation of the phoney war.
The family decide to bury their prized possessions, including a crate of wine,
Little suspecting that the Nazi's will plant a colony of new forests on their land;
At the same time, neighbours are either executed, or forced to wear a yellow triangle on their back.
Bound and gagged
23x19" Charcoal 2010
The student on the Intercity 125 has a Cold-War identity crisis.
Tucked in the breast pocket of his 1940s herringbone overcoat is a 50ml bottle of Glenfiddich
And a notebook of Ted Hughes-inspired poetry written under the pseudonym of Marian Evans.
The wonders of a comprehensive education and full-maintenance grants;
With enough left-over change in the other pocket to fund decadent posturing.
Thatcherism hasn't fully fucked up or revolutionised the country, yet.
Every time she cooked a meal, pasta alla wild fungi, cooked in red wine,
Trying to worm her way to his heart through the stomach:
His stomach ached and gassed for several hours, kiss by kiss.
Lilac Wine by Jeff Buckley was playing in the background.
There is a lone child in the other room of the flat and it is hungry.
With bottles scattered behind pot plants, cans crushed under sofa cushions,
She has had too much to drink and vomits up a meal of alphabet vegetable soup.
And now still retching, trying to divine the significance of letters in the sink...G...M...T....
Suspense with suspenders
24x20" Charcoal 2009
It's a hen cruising night at Camden, three over the clock.
Sat on the edge of a kerb stone, dress semi-hoisted, bladder overflowing,
She wants to leave her piss stain for all the zombies in town.
England have been knocked out of the World Cup.
Then. Commotion. Club-crawlers are alarmed.
But as her eyes refocus, there is a female death-metal band running down the street.
She laughs at this godforsaken photoshoot and dribbles more pee.
Instinctively. Fingers. Instagram.
He has a name in the art world for creative notoriety in the manner of Francis Bacon:
Violently bragging about who dares wins, fuelled by drink more harmful than cocaine and heroin.
Not to be outdone, his partner has left him for an Amsterdam retreat.
They are cursed to fantasise about each other in hangover and high mushrooming cloud.
The cuts and bruises still fresh on their respective bodies.
There is a trade war between China and America.
Tree as a thorn in my eye
(Set design after Wojciech Has's Saragossa Manuscript)
23x19" Charcoal 2010
Donning hat and coat and slipping on dancing shoes.
Le freak, c'est chic or is it the Can-Can?
His or her mind is shifting in time and place.
And this is the first time you fully recognise a problem with hearing and balance.
All those drunken conversations and couplings, fading to static and then silence.
The flesh, still willing, spinning you on the dance floor; until the world falls from grace.
Your life was foretold in the opening sequence of the film, Le Plasir (1952),
Where a masked young dandy celebrates life on the dance floor, then collapses.
How is that possible?
Perhaps, if we cut out the liver and rip-off the facial mask,
Everything in the spurting toxic blood will be revealed as both ancient and Science-Fiction.
L-R: Three generations: Konstantinos, Constantine and Kazimierz Gras
View of Bramley House (foreground), Silchester Estate high rises and Westway from the 17th floor of Grenfell Tower, 2015
If you put your ear to the ground, what can you hear?
Perhaps Counters Creek - the subterranean stream that flows down from Kensal Green
And threads past Silchester and Lancaster West Estates in North Kensington, London.
If you start to excavate Lancaster West Estate, what fragments do you unearth?
Possibly cups and saucers made by the Victorians and still serving post-war descendants.
These are buried in the slum clearance of the 1960s and 70s.
Now open up your inner being and listen to not just the stream and shattered shards,
But the cries of people who were displaced by the town planners:
During the first phase of redevelopment in this area
Decades before the building of More West and the cladding of Grenfell Tower.
The last words uttered, in-between sips of tea and beer.
Here is one of those distant voices that rings loud and true:
"To whom it may concern
Having received your notice of your intention of developing this area
And your formality to ask me to object,
I SHALL, most sincerely, object on the below grounds:
1. Before I bought this property on Talbot Grove, I came to your Town Hall in person enquiring into any future development. A map was taken out, overlooked and I was informed that you had no immediate plan. I purchased the property.
2. After purchasing the property, I spent what is a large sum of money, to me (over £500) to insert a damp proof course, where after I was able to have a closing order removed.
3. I bought the property for private and undisturbed accommodation for my children. If their home had to be taken away, it would re-open a sore of housing accommodation and restrict their movements.
4. I have NO CONFIDENCE in the Kensington Town Hall. I have a genuine grievance which I believe is equally reciprocated by the Town Clerk and his colleagues. i have been in my opinion cheated and my feelings were expressed in various correspondence to him, Colonial Office and other officials, all to no effect.
5. As a negro, I have no status, I have NO ONE to whom I can go for sincere advice. NO ONE to whom I can seek redress.
6. If my property has to be taken by the Town Hall, I am sincerely afraid that it will be priced to suit the Town Clerk's wishes.
I DO SINCERELY OBJECT
North Kensington, late 1960s; consultation meeting regarding redevelopment
Reproduced from Community Survival in the Renewal Process, PHD by Derek J. Latham, 1970
That was 1966. Here is another, less anguished, but equally desperate voice from 1971:
Re: Town and Country Planning Act - 1962
Proposed Development at Lancaster Road, W11
Our main objection is that we fear not enough compensation will be paid, to enable us to purchase a similar property where we can live and carry on our business. A change of business will undoubtedly cause difficulties to our business. We feel that in running the Oriental Casting Agency, we are rendering an important service to the Entertainment industry by supplying them with mainly Afro-Asian artists. We are the oldest established Agency of this type in London, and we provide a livelihood for many Afro-Asian actors, actresses and models etc. A change in address would have considerable effect on the growth of the business, which has, in the past few years, been very marked.
We have carried out numerous improvements to the property that was purchased in 1964.
We would like to make it clear at this early stage in the proceedings that before we could agree to the development taking place, we would insist on the following points:
a) Either we are provided with an alternative house of a similar type and condition, suited to our requirements.
Or we are provided with adequate compensation.
b) When and if we come to an agreement with the G.L.C. over this matter, we will be allowed at least ten months to enable us to make arrangements for the transfer of our business to the new address.
The Oriental Casting Agency. I suspect they might have supplied the plethora of Afro-Caribbean actors used in Leo The Last; the powerful film about an aristocratic slum landlord who is radicalised by his poverty-stricken community and whose townhouse is destroyed in the process. It had just been filmed on Testerton Street prior to that being demolished for the Lancaster West estate.
Testerton Street, west side, 1969; where all houses are painted black by the set designers of Leo The Last
RBKC Local Studies and Archives
Walkway at Lancaster West estate built over Testerton Street
Left: Salambo Mardi (acted by Christine Richer)
Right: Leo The Last (acted by Edward Daffarn and Constantine Gras)
Oil pastels, 16.5 x 23"
We can trace a line of community protest through official and non-official channels. The ones that are officially recorded, pre-internet, are the petitions taken to the town hall. They tell a story of how residents organised themselves and attempted to shape the urban development of what was to become Lancaster West estate.
Petition 1, June 1968
A petition was presented by Cllr. Douglas-Mann, urging the council to consider the plight of residents living within the boundaries of the development scheme who were unfurnished tenants. The recent housing survey undertaken by the Notting Hill Summer Project had shown that there were 167 furnished tenancies and all the families living in these cramped rooms, often without heating or water, were in need of being rehoused. Social workers and community organisers were raising this as a major concern. This petition was signed by 1,194 residents with 538 within the development area.
The council at the time was under no obligation to rehouse furnished tenants but would consider cases of genuine hardship. The priority was given to those on the waiting list.
Petition 2, June 1969
The following statement and petition was handed in to the Deputy Town Clerk by Mr J. Denham of the Lancaster Neighbourhood Centre. He and 30 children and 2 mothers had marched from North Kensington to the town hall.
"To the Council,
We are told that the infant mortality rate of our borough is 40% higher than the average for the other London boroughs. We feel that child care in this borough is as good as in any other. Our conclusion is that the bad and often insanitary housing prevalent in North Kensington, overcrowded conditions, and lack of playspace and amenities constitute a direct threat to the health and happiness of all children in North Kensington.
In view of this we urge:
1) That there should be more provision made for the rehousing of large families under the Lancaster West Redevelopment Scheme
2) That no family shall be evicted under any clearance scheme, whether they are furnished or unfurnished tenants
3) That North Kensington should be considered a housing emergency area and that all available local and national resources should be mobilised to see that every family in North Kensington has a decent house.
Lancaster Neighbourhood Centre."
The council generally regarded furnished tenants as mobile and of temporary duration, but would consider for rehousing those were who were long-term residents and who had genuine hardship.
Petition 3, Nov 1974
Cllr John F. S. Keys presents a petition protesting at the conditions of the roads and footpaths around the Lancaster West Redevelopment Area. This was signed by 250 local residents. "We call upon the council to take immediate action to eliminate the danger to pedestrians, cyclists and motorists."
The Council noted the concern and although this was beyond the normal resources of its cleaning service, would consider the possibility of introducing an Environmental Code of duties for contractors.
Petition 4, July 1978
A petition signed by 135 residents and children of Lancaster West Estate calling for more open play spaces in the area.
The council believed the residents were not aware of their plans to include more play spaces in the development.
Petition 5, May 1979
Cllr. Ben Bousquet presented a petition from tenants of the Lancaster West estate urging the council to reconsider their policies of switching off the central heating at estates at the end of april and extending services until the end of may.
Petition 6, November 1981
A petition was presented signed by 238 residents which contained the following "prayer":
"We the undersigned residents of the Lancaster West estate demand that the council gives priority to resolving the problems caused by the plague of cockroaches, bugs and other insects in our homes. Further, we understand that these insects constitute a health hazard and we are taking legal advice to our rights against our landlord, the council. Meanwhile, should nothing be done we may consider withholding our rent and rates until those insects are eradicated from our estate."
The council noted that cockroaches had gained a foothold in ducts and pipes at Grenfell Tower and Camelford Walk and were responding to this. Although a pest, they have little medical importance beyond the psychological effect of their unpleasant appearance. It was difficult for the council to access flats as a blanket treatment would be carried out to prevent further spread; legal forced entry might be required. The other insects mentioned are thought to be ants which appear from time to time on the estate. Tenants would be left to deal with this themselves.
Edward Daffarn reading from a petition handed to the RBKC Scrutiny Committee, 2015
Petition 7, January 2016
Grenfell Tower Residents address RBKC Scrutiny Committee
The residents had invited me to attend and document this meeting.
This is a summary of the speech given by Edward Daffarn:
"Thank you for allowing the residents of Grenfell Tower the opportunity to inform the Scrutiny Committee of the ill treatment, incompetence and plain abuse that we have experienced at the hands of the TMO during the Grenfell Tower Improvement Works. I am speaking to you in my capacity as a Lead Representative of the Grenfell Tower Resident Association, that was formed through adversity, in the summer of 2015 with the support and encouragement of our local MP, Lady Victoria Borwick.
To back up the testimony of Grenfell Tower residents to the Scrutiny Committee members of our R.A recently conducted a quantitative survey of leaseholders and tenants to measure levels of resident satisfaction / dissatisfaction as a result of the TMO's handling of the Improvement Works. The findings of this survey are truly shocking.
The survey revealed the following facts: 90% of Grenfell Tower residents have reported that they are dissatisfied with the way in which the TMO has conducted the Improvement Works. The survey found that 68% of residents said that they had been lied to, threatened, pressurised or harassed by the TMO. The survey also revealed that 58% of residents who have had the Heating Interface Unit (HIU) fitted in their hallways would like them to be moved to a more practical and safe location.
As a result of the findings of our survey and with the support of Lady Borwick, the Grenfell Tower Resident Association is calling for the Scrutiny Committee to commission an independent investigation into the Grenfell Tower Improvement Works, not least, so as to prevent the traumatic experiences of local residents being replicated when the RBKC undertakes the Improvement Works to other tower blocks in North Kensington."
Link to full speech on the Grenfell Action Group blog.
At the Scrutiny meeting, the council agreed for an investigation to be undertaken on behalf of the residents. However, this was to be managed by the TMO.
I was artist in residence at Lancaster West estate from April 2015 - June 2016 where I interviewed all of the original architects about their vision for the estate. I was not allowed direct access to Rydon and the other contractors tasked with the renovation of Grenfell Tower. Although commissioned by the TMO to make a short positive film about the works and to produce an art work for the new community space, I found myself deviating somewhat from the brief, especially once I started to listen to and record the life stories of residents. For a previous project, I made art with residents from Silchester Estate that drew on the social and mythic parallels with Leo The Last. This time around, I felt more like Leo, the individual who is observing and then directly implicated in the ensuing struggle that was taking place between residents and TMO/contractors/council. The film I made was a one hour portrait of residents. This was visually admired by the TMO, but was rejected as not fit for PR purpose. The art work made by children during the Grenfell fun day also languished and was never displayed in the tower after the works were completed.
Silchester Baths photograph, protected during building works in the lift lobby at Grenfell Tower, 2015
It should be noted that throughout its forty-year plus history, Grenfell Tower only had one art work on display. This was an evocative archive photo of Silchester Baths, the Victorian building that was sited near the tower and which critically altered the original masterplan as it became temporarily listed before being demolished; it subsequently became car parking, green space and is now the site of the Aldridge Academy. There was never a description included with the photo to explain to newer residents why the Baths were of importance to the local area. I raised this with the TMO, but it was not important in the scheme of things.
With my ear and inner being, I hear and then evoke.....
Generations of residents living in houses at Testeron Road as they bathe their bodies and wash their clothes at Silchester Baths.
The Baths and houses were caught in the red line of Slum Clearance programmes.
A film maker took hold of Testeron Road prior to it being wiped off the map by the council.
A false posh house was build by the film crew and then cinematically destroyed.
Leo The Last tells us that we can't change the world, but we can change our street.
Out of a ruined landscape, Testerton Walkway was built, one of the three blocks of housing that radiates out from the tower.
Grenfell Tower was renovated from 2015-2016 with an artist employed on site.
72 people died in the fire on the 14 June 2017.
When I think of Silchester Baths, Testerton Street, Testerton Walkway and Grenfell Tower, they should all be an interconnected and positive inspiration for how we manage space and housing; how this relates to play, heating, the control of pests and the consumption of social cups of tea. We symbiotically draw our health and wellbeing from the underground currents. Alas, those currents contain an equal measure of bitter tears and spilt blood.
Tuesday, 25 July 2017 Grenfell Tower Inquiry
Consultation on terms of reference
A voice from the floor:
"Looking at Grenfell Tower is like peeling back layers of the onion. At the surface a range of issues about building safety and failure of services to respond adequately to an emergency and tragedy. Behind that is the history of contempt and neglect that enabled those building regulations failures.
But behind that is the reality of discrimination. The process that decides who it is gets burnt to death and who sleeps happily in their comfortable homes. Many survivors have put their fingers on that underlying reality. They were given unsafe housing and the terms to make it safe refused or ignored because of who they are. They are by and large on modest incomes, black and from ethnic minorities or migrants.
This is not just about housing allocation in Kensington and Chelsea. Some of those killed were private leaseholders or private tenants. It's about how some people end up in worse housing, and then it's about how those people are treated as residents, as citizens, that they are effectively excluded from the important decision and that compounds their disadvantage. That's not just a problem in Kensington and Chelsea, but sadly there's nothing worse than Kensington and Chelsea."
Artist studio at Shalfleet Drive, 2015
A map of the listed buildings and structures in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea
I added Silchester and Lancaster West Estate to the list as they were threatened with regeneration
Cameras used by the Gras and Christofis family from the 1950's to present day:
1. Agfa isolette II, Made in West Germany, C1950's, 6x6 film
2. Bilora Bella 44, Made in West Germany, 1958 4×6.5 film
3. Bronica Zenza, Made in Japan, 6x6 film, C1980s
4. Praktica MTL50, Made in East Germany, 35mm film 1986
5. Canon EOS 3. Made in Japan, 35mm film, 1998
I suspect my best photographs come from a black and white documentary project of Kensal Green Cemetery that took place from 2000-2010, amassing thousands of photos in the process. These have never been displayed before. I want to showcase my work by reproducing three of the more expressionistic photos that are enhanced with darkroom techniques. We conclude with a rare colour slide.
Selenium toned paper
Limited edition print 1/2
Beyond the tree
Limited edition 1/1
Classic Greek column topped out with plant growth
Experimental darkroom print
Limited edition 1/1
Two into one
Double exposure 6x6 negative
Unfurl a roll of paper to walk across the marsh grass fields of Kenilworth.
This is a landscape that once had an artificial lake to defend the castle
And where the longest siege in English history took place in 1266.
The medieval scream of arrows is not conducted into my middle ear.
But an image develops in the liquid memory.
Bright young things, mustering arms, on the footbridge.
A battle of poohsticks in the brook.
Laughter resonates even at times of civil war.
The paper curls back.
The Business Card game.
88 cards selected from 1985-2017:
The oldest being T&A Associates - International Networking and Marketing;
And the most recent, Quality Solicitors, with the bulk representing art and culture.
Object of the game
First shuffle the pack and place face down.
Draw the first nine cards and place in a grid of 3x3.
Reorganise the layout until you attain a state of visual and textual perfection.
Read text or conjure image: horizontally or vertically, backwards or forwards.
These cards were exchanged during a conversation between potential business partners.
The card allowed the tribal chanting and affirmation of a business or personality.
A call and response might be triggered by phone or email.
There might be a visionary mission or logo that inspired one to connect.
In all sincerity, 90% were joker cards leading to no deals.
I seem to recall only having a business card, hand-made, from 2008-10.
This was at the height of the financial crisis.
Elephant - Be part of it - Please call us now
A black and white colour photo of three migrants and an activist on a train
England is a tattoo on a body without a head
Climb - Meet
Victoria, Albert and the Mayor of this fair island
Laugh - Trust
As clouds circle over green pastures
If you need to believe, register with a drawing therapist
You are on a mission, but beware - there is no past and there is no future.
Baudelaire did not fly or Rimbaud die and Lemy Caution is missing in action.
Rendezvous: "Brown tie?"
Password: "And braces!"
I am waiting here for the French agent with feathered hat.
The phone does not ring.
I am distracted by the kamikaze dive of a demented fly.
In one hand, a book of poetry by Anna de Noailles.
The other to mouth, sipping champagne out of a cracked glass.
I spy a refracted card being delivered under the door.
This facet a clue? That one a trap?
At the Institute I am ushered into a meeting room.
The silhouetted outline of a man is framed by a monstrous clock.
It has no second or minute hands.
The machine activates and my brain quivers.
I come round on the floor in a darkened cell with a folder in my hand.
I crave to read the contents, but.... I... wake.
I... wake on a bench outside the Louvre which is turning inside out.
My memory has been semi-erased.
Was I.... a.... European son?
Painting 1: The Poet's Elixir After Baudelaire
Or in other delirious words: "Pretty witty twoon. Swoony noon loon."
Acrylics and collage. 10 x 14"
Photo: Down and out in Paris
Hotel de Champagne et de Mulhouse, 1987
Advance Computer Institute, Rue du Faubourg-Montmartre, 1987
Folder 1986: Visnews
International news agency that broadcast the first daily satellite news service.
Drawing 1: Louvre, Outside In
Oil pastel and pencil, 22 x 17"
Drawing 2: Louvre, Inside Out
Oil pastel and pencil, 21.5 x 19"
Cléo de 5 à 7
Directed by Agnes Varda, 1962 and starring Corinne Marchand
Alphaville: une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution
Directed by Jean Luc-Godard, 1965 and starring Eddie Constantine
A blog entry inspired by seeing these films after an absence of 30 years; akin to waking from a dream.
I will overcome e-motion and travel sickness in search of past-tense, future-flex.
A year begins with John Whelan (pictured above) and myself sketching out a project plan and ends with an accumulation of Chaplin books: most of the pages well thumbed and words digested; some semblance of meaning extracted for artful purposes. But for a long period of time, I subscribed to the view that Buster Keaton out-classed Charlie. There is still a snobbish tendency to belittle the "Little Fellow," regarding his playful anarchy as a mere slap and dash; although, fair to say, this primal quality holds true to the early Keystone films. Funding permitting, a major arts project in 2019 will redress this balance and more. John and I want to commission ten artists, all working in different media, to explore the contemporary relevance of Chaplin's life, politics and films; rooting this in the community context of Lambeth and Southwark where he was born and bred. Imagine a month long festival of Chaplin-inspired art! We want to build on the Arts Council funded, The Melodramatic Elephant in the Haunted Castle (2017), where we imagined Chaplin meeting Michael Caine outside the Coronet Theatre in the Elephant and Castle.
Reading The Tramp's Odyssey, I was particularly moved by an interview Chaplin gave to a journalist from the New York Times in 1920. Chaplin was by this stage a global film star. His iconic image had evolved from the Satyric drunk into a rounded character who could command the high notes of comedy and the lows of pathos. The Kid in all its majesty was around the corner, arguably his first masterpiece.
Chaplin had also become mega-wealthy and powerful, calling all the creative shots in his own studio. But only a few years before he was a struggling performer on the stage, having endured the hardships of childhood in slum-torn Walworth and Kennington. Chaplin's parents were both music hall performers: his alcoholic father had abandoned the domestic life; his mother would suffer from psychosis. With no parents to look after Charlie and his brother Sydney, they both spent time in the workhouse.
In the interview, Chaplin recounts Christmas as a seven year old at the Central London District School for Paupers. Presents were being lined up on a table for the young inmates: tin watches, bags of candy, picture books. Chaplin had his eye on one particular object, a "big fat red apple". He had never seen such a beautiful fruit before and perhaps was motivated by a hunger that the institutionalised food could not meat/meet. When he was approaching the front of the queue, an elder pushed him out of the line and took him back to his room. Chaplin was haunted by these brutal words:
"No Christmas present for you this year, Charlie - you keep the other boys awake by telling pirate stories."
As it's the season of goodwill, let us rewrite history and surround Chaplin with apples and exotic fruits galore. The photo above shows the seven-year-old Chaplin (middle centre, leaning slightly) at the Central London District School for paupers, 1897. Reproduced from Wikimedia Commons.
What were those pirate stories Chaplin told his peers and which got up the snooty noses of the authorities? We can visualise him acting out cut-throat characters, obsessed by trinkets of gold. Perhaps this play had an element of the outsider, the Tramp that was to be.
I am also paying my own black and white homage to Chaplin with the following series of photos.
Fade in to the Church on the High Street, Willesden, the year of the Second Millennium. A cleric is fighting a losing battle to the world outside but maintains his sense of humour.
The Tramp wanders into shot with a new bowler hat, baggy trousers and overripe boots that was bequeathed to him down at the Clothes Bank. He is seated on the wall oblivious to the sign above his head. He tries to make eye and smile contact with each passer by. They avoid him like the plague.
The Tramp suddenly screams in silence. There is an attack in his jacket breast pocket. A circus of fleas from the previous owner of the suit? No! He pulls out a.......
The title card reveals it is merely the ringtone of a new fangled mobile phone.
Welcome to the year of Chaplin, 2019.
In December of last year, I made a pilgrimage to the garden at Lancaster West Estate and ended up with a vision for a dance at Silchester. While we didn't quite manage a waltz during Art For Silchester there was a performance and musical element to our drawing and ceramic making with over 200 local residents taking part. A special atmosphere was conjured. We shared life experiences and humour over the soundtrack of our own studio musicians. All the amazing art work went on display at Estate Open Weekend and also toured down to the Lyric Theatre Hammersmith as part of a fundraising evening for Grenfell. Many thanks to Nahid Ashby and London Funders for supporting my residency which acted as an informal therapy for affected residents to mitigate recovery from trauma. And also to RBKC Arts for the funding of book making workshops in early 2019 that will produce 60 copies for residents. I have long been championing creativity down at Silchester and look forward to SPID Theatre Company joining us for more artistic happenings.
What of the garden? The garden in the shadow of Grenfell that I have been visiting for the past five years. This patch of humble green in the middle of Testerton and Barandon walkways has featured in two of my previous films, Vision of Paradise (2015) and The Forgotten Estate (2016). I continued my vigil here over the course of 2018 shooting a film which is in the final cut. The film is about Stewart Wallace and my spiritual connection to his garden in the aftermath of the fire that claimed the lives of 72 people. The garden was partially damaged and the soil contaminated. But life continues. The Strawberries Are For The Future will be released in 2019.
This week I went on a walk to All Saint's Notting Hill attempting to reconstruct a photo that was taken circa 1850's. Is this the architect and assistant posing in front of the church in a landscape of mud? They look at us and the uncertain future of urbanisation. The building works had ground to a halt. The church had run out of funds and the spire was never built. What we see in the contemporary photo is the restored building after extensive WW2 bomb damage. Buildings invariably tell a more dramatic story than a garden.
I recall how in 2015 the original architects of Grenfell tower met residents and listened to their experiences of living in the high rise: positive in terms of flat size and the views; although they registered the impact of the renovation taking place. I took photos of three of the architects around the estate and one posed by the new sculpture at the base of the building that was being wrapped in flammable Reynobond polyethylene (PE) cladding panels. I still have no consoling memory of these social decisions I made as an artist, in the humane intention to forge links between the past and the present that was on the brink of destruction.
But still I walk albeit with a limp of late (ankle injury healing). Maybe it is not the end destination that matters. En route to All Saint's, I walk past the Portobello Wall Public Art having completely forgotten about this commission. This is a 100 metre length drawing into paint by Anastasia Russa. It is a kaleidoscopic image of local folklore that also takes in the recent tragedy of Grenfell. It will be an impressive specatcle when completed; assuming more work will be done to colour in the graphic outlines. As you approach the wall from Goldborne Road, the first portrait you encounter is Piers Thompson. Most appropriately, Tim Burke can be found at the other end of the road, near the Westway.
Piers is a resident of Silchester who campaigned to save the estate when it was (still is!) threatened with redevelopment. I smile at how Piers wittily adapted one of the lines from the architects: "What do we want? Gradual change. When do we want it? In due course." Mr P is also a hipster DJ and hosts the Portobello radio show. A man who seemingly knows everyone and is forever making meaningful connections. Tim Burke, I regret to say, was prematurely taken from us this year. I have fond memories of his support for my first film, Floodlight (2010); it was screened at the pop up cinema that he set up under the Westway. We swapped Ballardian notes on the Westway and he paid for me to make a short film that involved a taxi ride across the elevated road.
In between Piers and Tim, there is an array of characters and situations, real and imagined, with perhaps too heavy a dose on historicism. But being a hat fetishist, I approved of all the flat caps and trilbys and straw hats. But is this relevant to our contemporary world? As if by creative calling, a man passed that moment and asked me if I knew who I was photographing. He introduced himself as Paul and invited me to look at the painting of Leslie Palmer which was sited at the another end of the wall. We trotted up. I only knew Leslie by name and deed; he is a founding figure of the Carnival. It was a pleasure to make the connection and have him talked about so affectionately by a friend.
Also included in the narrative is Khadija Saye. I never met her in the year I worked at Grenfell tower as artist in residence. She died at a point when her photography was on the brink of wider acclaim. Let us hope that one day a proper retrospective can be held to celebrate her talent in the local area rather than down at the Tate's of the world.
So pausing, perusing at the wall, I ask: what is this representation of past, present and future? Whose history? As an artist who often mines the deep resources of personal and collective history, this can be a thorny process. How do you represent and edit? It's well documented that North Ken has a complex and troubled history: deep social divisions amplified by a discredited local authority and a governing class that has recently imposed austerity cuts affecting those most in need or vulnerable. Even at the grass roots level, an organisation which was set up to manage 23 acres of land for the benefit of the community, has had a checkered history. Most recently, with its own corporate-lead redevelopment plans that were halted by fierce local criticism. Toby Laurent Belson and Niles Hailstones, artist and activists, have been leading the fight against the Westway Trust to be more inclusive and accountable. The Tutu Foundation is running an independent review into Institutional Racism covering it's practices and policies. This is part of the unfolding history and artists play a role in not only providing cohesion and well being (what our funders want), but the need, when required, to thrown down the gauntlet and challenge the status quo.
We wait to see how the Portobello Wall art panel unfolds. It could do with some explanatory sections; perhaps our local historian, Tom Vague, will be busy over the summer with guided walks. Will the community get involved, colour in and add their own experiences? Can it fully capture the rich radicalism of the area? Hopefully Anastasia is up to the challenge. And we want to see her tell the story (she has already started) of 13 members of a local monkey jazz band (yes, I said, monkey jazz band!) who escaped from their owner, with several holed up at Latimer Road station, pelting passers by with bananas. Nuts!
I have an uplifting update on that blog from last year. I talked about how I and my film/art was in a state of suspended tension. During the course of last year, it's been a privilege to be a small part of Grenfell United and specifically to support residents from the tower in any meaningful way in rebuilding their lives. This has involved supplying several with art work, photos and film footage of loved ones and the community that lived at Grenfell. And the art work made during the Grenfell Fun Day? It is now hanging in the community rooms used by Grenfell United and a copy had been presented to The Speaker, The Right Honourable John Bercow and is part of the parliamentary art collection. A special mention to Nendie Pinto-Duschinsky for organising the art presentation and for marshalling the volunteers who supported a day of campaigning by the survivors and bereaved family members.
1881 model of Singer's Velociman, designed by Rev. Charsley
Reproduced from Badminton Library Cycling of 1896
Pedal Power exhibition, Museum of Oxford (2009)
Oxfordshire, cycling and their visual image in the camera.
Cycle and photographic technologies were fruits of the Victorian period, and both were capable of causing excitement and derision in equal measure; one a poor man’s horse, the other a poor relation to the art of painting. Though initially restricted to certain social classes, they were destined to have profound social implications that are still with us; notions of self image and freedom. They both developed into major industries and helped spawn other technological and scientific advances, particularly in road transport and astronomy.
This exhibition will focus on the 1880’s- 1890’s, when photography and cycling were in their relative infancy. Both technologies were developing rapidly, having yet to reach the era of mass production, and both were the result of many individual inventions and myriad small scale manufactures. This period culminates in the Rover “safety” bicycle and the box brownie camera, and is contrasted with the situation today, when again innovation is rife, but this time in response to environment and health concerns on one the one hand, and developments of digital technology on the other.
Five individuals associated with Oxford will be used to illustrate the early impact of these intertwined technologies.
Henry William Taunt
Taunt was the most prolific professional photographer based in Oxfordshire. He amassed over 60,000 glass plate negatives (although some were taken by assistants) and these comprise a unique social record of the Victorian and Edwardian period. Taunt produced one of the first photographically illustrated guide books on the River Thames. He was a familiar sight in Oxford traveling about on a tricycle; he had a two seater version with a photographic assistant in front doing all the pedalling.
1876 - 1947
A novelist who wrote a highly acclaimed trilogy, Lark Rise, Over to Candleford and Candleford Green. In this she looked back at her childhood in the Oxfordshire countryside of Juniper Hill and the transition to an urban way of life. Thompson recounts the first sighting of a bicycle in her village in the early 1880's and again when they were mass produced and sold at a cheaper price which meant more people could afford them:
“At first only comparatively well-to-do women rode bicycles; but soon almost every one under forty was awheel, for those who could not afford to buy a bicycle could hire one for six-pence an hour. The men's shocked criticism petered out before the fait accompli, and they contented themselves with such mild thrusts as:
Mother's out upon her bike, enjoying of the fun,
Sister and her beau have gone to take a little run.
The housemaid and the cook are both a-riding on their wheels;
And Daddy's in the kitchen a-cooking of the meals.”
Text quotation from Lark Rise To Candleford, Author: Flora Thompson, PP. 493-494
Reproduced by permission of Oxford University Press
During the 1890s conservative elements of society regarded cycling as improper for women; some believed it might affect child bearing abilities or lead to moral ruin. Practically, there was the issue of how women could cycle in their cumbersome long skirts. This was not fully resolved until the manufacture of the drop frame ladies bicycle in 1887. By the start of the twentieth century, the bicycle had become a symbol in the struggle for women’s emancipation.
Charles Lutwidge Dodgson
1832 - 1898
Better known by his pen name, Lewis Carroll, Dodgson was an exceptional portrait photographer of children. Like Taunt, he mastered the wet-plate collodion photographic technique which required plates to be coated with chemicals shortly before exposure. This was labour intensive and required great skill. Photographic exposures for this period could last from a few seconds to several minutes and presented a challenge to capturing movement, such as bicycles in motion. By the 1890’s, ready-coated plate negatives gave photographers more freedom.
In 1882 Dodgson took a four mile ride on Rev, Charsley’s Velociman. Though much impressed, Dodgson felt that the steering, in which the rider leaned away from the direction in which he wished to turn, engendered a fear of being thrown off. He proposed several possible mechanisms to counter this design feature and one was developed to a prototype stage by Singer of Coventry. As it was not adopted, it can only be assumed that its efficacy did not warrant the extra complexity entailed.
Rev. Robert Harvey Charsley
1826 - 1907
Charsley was a Chaplain of the Radcliff Infirmary in Oxford and in 1869 designed the Velociman tricycle.
The inspiration for this came from his desire to develop a machine suitable for those in his care that had lost the ability to use their legs; industrial accidents were very common during this era. To this end, the machine was driven by hand operated levers that rotated the two front wheels. The full employment of the hands in providing power to the front wheels lead to an unusual method of steering the single rear wheel; a tiller bar was used, its position was controlled by the movement of the driver’s back.
Although the velociman cost £28 which was more than the average annual salary, it was often purchased by a charity subscription list.
Despite this, the Velociman was a successful design that had a wide appeal. As Charsley noted in a letter to the Oxford Journal of 1882, describing a 500 mile, 14 day bicycle tour he had undertaken: “During my tour I met several ladies and others on the velociman – one lady, 73 years of age, who was much pleased by the comfort of her machine.”
It was manufactured for most of its life by Singer & Co. cycling company of Coventry, one of the world's leading manufacturers of bicycles.
A derivative of the velociman was called the Manupede, and as the name implies this utilised not only the hands but also the feet, by dint of a treadle, in the generation of motive power. Charsley used a different name for this machine so as to dissociate it from any connection with disability; he himself having grown frustrated at being assumed disabled by the fact that he regularly rode a velociman.
William Richard Morris, Viscount Nuffield
1877 - 1963
William Morris started his engineering and entrepreneurial career in Oxford, in 1893, as a young lad of 15 apprenticed to a local bicycle shop at 5 shillings a week. When Morris started his own cycle business, well into the era of the modern safety bicycle, he would have followed a typical model of the day: buying kits of parts from larger suppliers, assembling and finishing them, and perhaps adding extra features to distinguish his products from others. Morris himself often cycled the 120 mile round trip to Birmingham to collect the parts. He was a notable amateur cyclist winning over 100 championships.
Morris was also representative of a large number of men who around the turn of the century were involved with bicycles and later became active in other industrial areas. Components that were new to the bicycle industry, such as gears, bearings and pneumatic tyres, were later to prove decisive in the manufacture of automobiles and aircraft.
By 1910 Morris had wound down his cycle business and opened a factory in Cowley that would mass produce a range of Morris cars that would make him an extremely rich and influential figure.
This exhibition also looks into the future. The ubiquity of camera based technologies powered by computing, speed, surveillance, mobile phone cameras and internet sites such as Flickr and YouTube suggest that the photographic image has limitless uses and fascination. Conversely within the UK, cycling and cyclists have become marginalised, roads now being dominated by the car. Oxford presents a rare exception to this, but with the resurgence of innovation and current environmental concerns, cycling should have a bright future. However, it must be remembered that a cyclist “has only one heart” and that this physiological limitation presents many challenges to the organisation of society if bicycling is to match the ubiquity of camera use.
Exhibition curated by Constantine Gras. Funded by Oxford City Council and University of Oxford.
Notes by Andrew Hawkins and Constantine Gras, with assistance from David Hibberd.
I began this project in May 2008 when I became interested in how Oxford organises its transport system, making contact with individuals who constitute this culture and thinking about how cycling fits into societal concerns about reducing our carbon footprint and the state of the nation’s health.
As I began the process of research in early 2009, using the Oxfordshire Studies and the British Museum digitalisation of nineteenth century newspapers, I made many thrilling discoveries: the Taunt collection and Charsley’s Velociman were highlights.
While the historical dimension engaged my attention, I also wanted to represent the contemporary vibrancy in my own photography; although many locals tell me there isn’t anything remarkable and that Oxford has a long way to go before it matches levels of cycling to be found in European cities like Amsterdam.
I am truly grateful to all those individuals who have shared and shaped the vision of this exhibition.
Constantine Gras, 2009
During the exhibition we were able to trace only one surviving model of the Velociman (a pioneer of modern handcycles), albeit one much modified over the years. A follow-up example was planned at the Nuffield Orthopeadic Centre to display and showcase the Velociman in more detail.
Hopefully this exhibition might materialise one day. As of writing, 2 Dec 2018, I have been nursing a torn ligament in my ankle and cycling ironically offers the most pain free mode of transport.
I fondly laugh about how a risk assessment was conducted in 2009 to facilitate the forward dismount from a penny farthing at Oxford town hall: YouTube.
Constantine Gras, 2018
Henry Taunt photo from 1900 of the college tower at Magdalen College, Oxford.
Reproduced from Oxfordshire County Council archives: www.pictureoxon.org.uk
Rosa May Billinghurst, suffragette protest, 1910
Reproduced from LSE library
Henry Woods with a Velociman, C1990s, Spalding
Pedal Power exhibition, Museum of Oxford 2009