A step backward and a dance forward
North Kensington estates, with blackened shell of Grenfell, as seen from Kensal Green Cemetery
Stepping forward and backwards in time
It is customary to do something slightly eccentric following the domestic excesses of Christmas Day. I didn't fancy taking a skin dip in the nearby Grand Union Canal, but this is my account of a walk on Boxing Day, that I measured at 3,900 steps from my home to Lancaster West Estate. I am a hopeless mathematician, but this measuring of time and space gave purpose to a psycho geographical plan for the New Year; one where a hesitant step might become a graceful and proud dance. But at this juncture in time, it seems fitting for an artist formerly in residence at Lancaster West and about to start in earnest (for a second time) on Silchester Estate, to take a spiritual constitution. So I ventured on foot to the garden in the shadow of Grenfell Tower to reflect on events that have changed my life. But first, let us set the chain in motion.
After 300 steps, I entered Kensal Green Cemetery that offers a convenient short-cut to Scrubs Lane in an area landlocked by the close proximity of railway, canal, elevated motorway and this necropolis. I also wanted to pay my respect and walk pass the site of Denis Murphy's grave, one of the 71 confirmed victims of the fire. The cemetery alas was just closing when I arrived.
We can ignore the following 1000 plus walking steps (a building next to Travis Perkins on Harrow Road that was being pulled down for flats, the two women smoking fags outside the Mayhem Animal Home, the electric car being charged, the soul less streets, the bustle of traffic) until we pass an advertising hoarding on Scrubs Lane. The seven tired towers of pudding grabbed my attention. I paused on my walk. I was reminded of a scene from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, where Richard Dreyfuss is possessed after his encounter with extra terrestrial life and carves out the sculptural shape of a mountain range that holds some unknown significance and to which he must journey.
A dessert served under a car scrapheap at the industrial end of Scrubs Lane
Westway Grafitti Wall
Grenfell Tower memorial art work at Westway
At 3000 steps I am at the graffiti wall, a public space under the Westway that is one of the few locations in London officially available for artists to tag with spray paint. A lovely memorial has been made here and has not been touched by other artists. It has become one of my defining urban images. A building that has now been ripped from the fabric of the area. It is drifting off in a blue sky with wings and a halo. i don't actually believe in angels and perhaps the Christian iconography is not fully inclusive, but the vision is compelling.
And then a few steps more and I am on Silchester Estate, the four high rises and low rise blocks that represents the gentle sister estate to Lancaster West. I bump into my old friend, Peter Radisic with his dog, Zena. They are on their daily walk. He had recently told me about the impact of losing a dear friend in the fire and didn't regret having had to punch someone who made racist comments about this. Peter had been to counselling sessions, but as I learnt in an earlier interview with him, his buddhist approach to life makes him value self-help when healthcare professionals are struggling to assist.
Peter and Zena at Silchester Estate with Grenfell Tower in background
Brickwork and housing between Testerton and Barandon Walkways leading to the garden
And then at 3600 steps I arrive at the distinctive red brick facade of the finger blocks, the three low rise housing units radiating out from Grenfell tower which forms about half of Lancaster West estate. I spy an abandoned television. I can't believe it's the exact same Panasonic model I have at home. I see Richard Dreyfuss recognising his sculpture in the Devil's Tower monument as it flashes up on a news programme. I could substitute Devil's Tower for Grenfell and the moment six months ago when I turned on the box to watch the morning news and my gut wrenched at the sight of a burning building that I knew so well. The fire, fire, fire that came to haunt my life and art. Indeed, as it touched so many, not just within the UK.
When I was a V&A Museum artist based on Silchester Estate in 2014-15, I was first drawn to the garden in the shadow of Grenfell Tower and over the years this has assumed importance in my life. To the casual outsider it might appear scruffy in a thrown together way. But there is a singular beauty to this space and encapsulated in the rugged, bearded, mystical features of its community gardener, Stewart Wallace. In the film, Vision of Paradise, I first introduced Stewart and his charmingly eccentric array of found objects and cultivated plants. He has a poetic sensibility and in conversation made connections between memorials for the dead, angels, Harry Potter, Frestonia and regeneration in a stream of consciousness that the best modernist writers would die for. Stewart became Virgil to my Dante as he guided me through the hell and purgatory of housing issues that was the subject matter of that film.
Vision of Paradise from Constantine Gras on Vimeo.
I stayed in the garden for about an hour hoping that Stewart would materialise. He would often spot me from his balcony window and come down for a chat. I'm pleased that on recent encounters he had recovered from a stroke and was able to speak more fluently. But given the season and fondness he has for a a tipple, he was probably sleeping like a cherub or had perhaps visited family in Scotland. I smiled when I noted the large champagne bottle in his garden. I dare not look up as Grenfell towers over the garden. I look around to see if there are any new additions, but only spot familiar objects. The angel next to the vacancy sign. Stewart's award for being a Garden Hero hanging under a pair of bat's wings. I would like to know if he has planted any seeds for spring and summer. How contaminated is this soil from the burnt cladding?
Two security guards from the tower say hello as Stewart's garden is an access point to the upper decking. As I sit in the garden and meditate, trying to ignore the blackened shell, I hear two visitors approach behind. Their tentative footsteps signal them as sight seekers. They are out on a walk just like me. I wonder what they take away from their visit. Thankfully, they stay at a distance and are not interested in the garden.
And then as I leave the estate, I come across a photo of Denis Murphy. I reflect on those occasions I met this quiet and thoughtful man. When I get home, I dig out my sketches made of Denis and other residents. I read out a comment he made at a residents meeting about not being bullied by the TMO. And I recall the art work made by children at the Grenfell Fun Day on Saturday 30th May, 2015. Denis was one of the last people I chatted to from Grenfell back in 2016 as he inquired about the art work and when it was going to be framed for the community room. The drawing was never put on display for reasons that I cannot fathom. I can only assume that the TMO who commissioned this had a negative evaluation of my residency. They should have asked Denis and the other residents for feedback.
Looking back, I have a complex range of feelings associated with Grenfell. It's hard to unpick and articulate them as they fluctuate from melancholia to anger, self-questioning to a growing sense of the need for decisive social and artistic action.
I first started working in and around the estates in 2009 and it subsequently became a home away from home. I had an artists studio here. Made many good friends. I also learnt a lot from my neighbours and was radicalised in a positive way. One obvious example was Edward Daffarn, the co-author of the pioneering and campaigning Grenfell Action Group blog, that predicted many of the tragic outcomes of regeneration. An amazingly passionate and intelligent man with a care for his community that most people before the fire could not understand or sympathise with. He overcame his initial distrust of my art and became a supporter of my engagement at a time when residents were in bitter dispute with the TMO. I'm not sure how I managed to walk the tightrope between residents and the housing authority. But Edward opened my eyes to many things on the estate and what was going on in the wider area. He challenged me to campaign. I'm sorry now that I did not actively do this. Although I didn't make banners and paraded them around the town hall, I did take part in squatting activist events that Edward was involved in and supported him as he organised demonstrations outside the house of RBKC's chief regenerator, Cllr. Rock Feilding-Mellen, who lived directly opposite the estate.
The TMO had also paid me to make a 10 minute promotional film about the regeneration and the benefits to residents. This would be the first of my deviations from my brief. It was obvious that no film could be made without really involving the residents and their life experiences. So I produced a 1 hour portrait of life on the estate, as a work in progress, including contributions from two residents who lived in Grenfell, one of those being Edward. At this stage he was persona non grata to the TMO. So as I was carefully editing Edward's comments as part of the film, I hoped the outcomes would facilitate better dialogue and respect between residents and the TMO. I believe I looked at this estate with fresh eyes. An outsider, an artist can do that. I also quickly realised that to understand the complex issues of the estate, that had a reputation from the outside of being fractious, it would be sensible to look at its past and bring back and interview the original architects. I also hoped that all my original research into the origins of the estate, its flaws and warts, would lead to a new found belief in the estate. This was another unscripted moment. I did this at the same time modern architects were transforming the tower block with cladding, a new heating system, double glazing, additional flats, improved facilities for the nursery and boxing club. This should have been a positive regeneration. That is what residents wanted. But the manner in which it was handled alienated many. Edward and other residents made me understand in detail how the effects of RBKC's wider regeneration plans for the social housing estates in the area, effectively running them down to the ground through lack of care and then demolishing them, would have the effect of displacing local residents who cold not afford to buy back into any redevelopment. Making the cosmetic surface of the building fit into the clean look of the recently built academy that was built on the green spaces surrounding the tower. Turning the "troublesome" north into a mirror image of the affluent south of the borough.
I discovered that the architect of Grenfell tower was Nigel Whitbread. A phone call revealed that he lived locally. He told me no one knew he designed the tower. I invited him to meet Edward in his flat. Nigel was delighted to see how people valued living in the high rise. Edward was thrilled to hear about Nigel's own experience of trying to influence the local authority in planning matters. I believe Lancaster West Estate was built to the highest standards possible in the 1970s, post Ronan-Point. This will now be scrutinised in the forthcoming public inquiry. The police investigation will also look back at the whole history of changes made to the tower block in order to categorically identify what went so wrong and how criminal charges might be brought to bear. I feel really sorry for Nigel who has been profoundly affected by the fire. I hope he realises that the building was intrinsically safe, but that it was successive generations of managers who were responsible for potential failures in the fire detection and evacuation procedures and the latter day architects and building contractors. And those budgetary decisions and final sign offs made by RBKC council who were ultimately responsible for the building.
I posed a question. Was this estate an ideal for living? I answered a provisional, yes. I had a vision that Grenfell and the surrounding estates could transcend their undervalued time but needed imaginative resident-lead maintenance and gradual change. Now the tower will be razed to the ground and the surrounding housing probably given the accelerated upgrade of modernisation that should have been part of a long term plan for the estates. But it now feels like my social and political agenda is scorched earth. The film I made about residents, their intelligent critical perspectives on how the estates could be maintained, was rejected by the TMO as the same tired old voices. The film also contains images of adults and children who are no longer living. It is painful to watch. And the art work I made with children is now gathering dust. It was however featured in a sensitive and searing film made by Nendie Pinto-Duschinsky called On The Ground at Grenfell that has played to widespread acclaim and scooped the Best Film at the Portobello Film Festival in 2017. An abridged version can be seen on Channel 4. But I feel the work I did on the estate will have a sad and bitter legacy until it is fully reclaimed by the community and only then shared with a wider audience via the media.
The past 6 months has flashed by and I've often felt like a character in a ghostly film or dream. At specific points, I see myself being chased and hiding from the world and then at others I'm a spectator or a participant on a stage that is on fire. I have been asked lots of questions from the media. I have offered very little in return. Perhaps that was the wrong strategy. They say it is good to talk. I was waiting for art to ride to my rescue. But there is more to life than art. That is so obvious now. But patience has other virtues and its a great honour to be asked back by Silchester Residents Association. Art For Silchester will be unfolding over the next 7 months, possibly for the remainder of my lifetime; such has been the impact of this event. I don't want to be known as that Grenfell artist. No one should have claim to this. I welcome all artistic interventions and look forward to the gallery based work of Steve McQueen. I have always prided myself on art that is collaborative and social, making space for others, especially those who don't normally participate in art. But I need to ensure that my voice is heard loud and clear. So as I walked to the estate, travelling backward and forward in time, there was an urgent and renewed spring to my step.
Grenfell Fun Day on Saturday 30th May, 2015 with children of the estate making a large scale drawing
Live, Laugh, Love: completed drawing that was scheduled to be hung in the new community room at Grenfell tower
Picture in words
Live, laugh, love
I love you England and Morocco.
Poo and pee.
Three, four, five, six, seven.
Ground floor, 2nd floor.
The movements of a lift.
An elephant, rhinoceros and giraffe
Came to Grenfell tower
For the day.
Lionel Messi is the best.
Live, laugh, love
(Words written by children on the drawing and made into a poem by Constantine Gras)
Residents Meeting with the TMO at Lancaster West Estate with Denis Murphy stating "Your not going to bully me!"
8 September 2015
Edward Daffarn at RBKC Housing and Property Scrutiny Committee reading out a petition from residents of Grenfell asking for an independent inquiry into how the TMO managed the regeneration of the tower, 6 January 2016
Christine Richer and Edward Daffarn, residents of Lancaster West Estates, as extras in Leo The Last
Oil pastels, 15-16 September 2015
Demonstration outside Cllr. Rock Feilding-Mellen's house opposite Lancaster West Estate, March 2016
Radical Housing Network squatting in a Knightsbridge property to protest the Housing Bill, 9 March 2016
Michael Jardine, resident of Silchester Estate, leads guided walk to community garden at Lancaster West Estate
Open Garden Estates, organised by Architects for Social Housing and Constantine Gras, 18 June 2016
Constantine Gras sketching on the Silent March for Grenfell Tower, 14 November 2017
Banner at Silent March for Grenfell, 14 December 2017
This is a coda where I can change pitch and tone. I'm already sensing that if I up my tempo, increase my stride pattern, then that walk will break out into a dance. Hopefully not in the style of Basil Fawlty. I was thinking more of Zorba the Greek. I need to dance here at Silchcester and Lancaster West Estates. This is a future chapter and art project waiting to happen. Please don't think I've got my half Polish, half Greek knickers in a twist or that I've lost my marbles.
The Greeks have thousands of dances scattered across their numerous islands and the ones I have been taught from the North East Aegean, Oinousses to be exact, my mother land, has ritualistic dances that celebrate the philosophic pains and the sensual pleasures. It's not Strictly Come Dancing as you might know it but related to the Argentine tango and the American Blues. Even a cursory YouTube viewing of Antony Quinn's dance as Zorba will reveal these qualities of dance. And UNESCO have just listed Rebeitko, which is the root of modern Greek music and dance, on its Cultural Heritage List. This is the urban music and dance that my grandparent's generation brought over to mainland Greece in the 1920s after they were displaced from the crumbling Ottoman empire and before the emergence of the modern Turkish state (via a deadly exchange of populations). The happenings at late night cafes and clubs articulated the feelings of refugees and the marginalised grappling with drink and drugs, poverty, despair, while searching for love and happiness. My mother was born into this diaspora and became a singer on her island. She has thankfully handed down some of these traditions.
Music and dance are dynamic and emotional elements that underpin all my drawings which are in effect durational performances. It has also played small cameo roles in previous films. One of my favourite film makers is Max Ophuls and he is a master of capturing the musical rhythms of life. The recent Arts Council England funded project, The Melodramatic Elephant in the Haunted Castle, had a wonderful dance sequence at its core that was devised by John Whelan and actors from the People's Company.
As I feel the need to grow new creative wings, let us try a left field dance in that residency at Silchester. In addition to the drawings, film, clay making, creative writing and book making that is already in the pipeline, I want to emulate something in the style of DV8 Physical Theatre. Connecting to Rumpus has already unleashed the dormant dancer in me. So when I'm not cycling down to the estates, when I'm not walking and thinking reflective thoughts, I might be inviting residents and other artists to share music and dance from their cultural backgrounds as well as embrace the best of British hip and toe bone shaking. I might even try some free improvisations in Waynflete Square although please note my days of spinning are over given my hearing condition.
Yes. Am I not a multi media and improvising artist? When we are lost for words, let us move towards the abstraction of sound and movement. Here we can create art that expresses joy and humour at the same time as challenging social iniquities.
Nursery (2013) from Constantine Gras on Vimeo.
A 12 minute film about a former nursery on Silchester Estate that was converted into a temporary artist studio. Five artists reflect on their practice and this is related to the wider history of the area.
Storyboard for Inger-Land, music and dance film that fuses British and Asian cultures, 2012
Greek dancing solo and ensemble, London, 2005
Body Drift, 1990, VHS Video
Deconstructing and fragmenting movement in an artists studio
Sound remixed in 2017: original soundtrack from John Surman replaced by Laurence-Eliot
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