World's End Is located between King's Road and the river Thames in South Kensington. It is also the name for the large estate located here. This was built at the same time as Lancaster West estate where I am currently community artist in residence. I thought it useful to pay the sister estate a visit and a recent Open Day afforded that opportunity.
The architectural design at World's End is far more striking and successful. It appears to be designed as the original architect, Eric Lyons, had intended. The estate consists of 7 high-rise tower blocks interlinked by 9 low-rise walkways with two internal courtyards. All the buildings merge into each other and create that unified feeling. There are also shops and other facilities built in and around World's End which it's brother in the north is sorely missing. Notable amongst these are a school, church and theatre. Lancaster West had the same "walkways in the sky" aspiration but it's building process was far more complicated and resulted in a more fragmentary outcome.
What the estates have in common are the signage. As I've discovered in the archives, the design team of Jock Kinneir and Margaret Calvert were appointed to produce the estate navigation for both Lancaster West and the World's End in the early 1970s. They built upon their classic designs used to revolutionise signage on Britain's motorways. I particularly like the way individual flat numbers at Chelsea Reach Tower are denoted in a tower like grid. Very elegant.
It was a pleasant surprise to come across a public art work that seemed to unconciously reference this design history. Set high up on a sheer brick facade, was a series of signs, capturing the receding light of the day and providing reflective glimpses back in time as well as into the future. They seemed to be quizzical pointing in various, complicated directions. How do you make a home in the rich city? How do you find your bearings in communal life? What is the role of art?
Every cloud has a silver lining
Fade in. A city landscape. We hear questions being asked by a range of people. Tentative answers are given in response.
I'm moving onto Lancaster West estate, what is it really like?
It's the largest estate in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, nearly 40 years old with lots of friendly people and the flats are well-sized. It's in the ward of Notting Barns.
Is there a strong sense of community here?
It's hard to be objective. The estate is run by the TMO and pioneered the first resident-lead management board for an estate in England. It's a shame there is no current resident association, but groups are forming or reforming. There is also the critical voice of the Grenfell Action Group.
Want to smoke some weed?
No thank you, I'm a bit busy with my art at the moment.
What is a community artist?
Amongst other things, one who works on social issues and works collaboratively with the community.
This is a replay of the type of conversations I've had on the estate.
Incidentally, I'm the community artist.
After 4 months, I feel at home with what some residents call the forgotten estate.
What can I contribute to its tales of woe and wonder?
How do we hear voices that are never heard?
What stories are worth telling?
Are we myth making, rabble rousing or hopefully coalescing the community?
What is this? Where is this? It's worth while mapping this territory in more detail.
Lancaster West is 1200 homes scattered over a large site - they built with a flair for space in the 70s.
The various parts of the estate were never unified with concrete decking as the original architects had envisaged.
This design would have synchronised with the nearby Westway and underground.
Cars that fly in the sky and commuters that are tubed, on this section, in an elevated train.
So why not have people walking in the sky?
"The deck may be thought of as the deck of a ship, in so far as it is the roof on which one can walk,
And other superstructures or buildings either penetrate or sit on the top of it." (60s Masterplan)
Decking only now survives wrapped around the tower block.
It offers a pleasant promenade to look down on the green and the recently built academy and leisure centre.
Let us meet some of the residents.
The lady who does yoga in her flat and dreamily looks across to the horizon and the London Eye.
She tells me there is a solar eclipse this week and it's effecting the geo-politcal balance.
The community gardener who has just seen himself in Visions of Paradise at the Portobello Film Festival.
He is waiting for the bearded wonder upstairs to rain down on his garden.
He talks about the estate as a black and white film in which there is a sudden shaft of colour.
Does this colour represent his Wizard of Oz thunder storm?
I mention to him a B&W film that I had a starring role in and which deployed a lightning flash of colour. Great minds!
Another resident says I should be making a film about the refugee crisis.
He also adds that we should not let anyone else into the country.
Are there refugees making the perilous journey to our new world and who might end up on this estate?
If they arrive and get lost (see previous blog), they could ask the postman on his beat.
He clearly knows his way around but is busy complaining about boys interfering with his trolley.
Listen to those other voices.
Some are asking when will the Grenfell tower improvement works end?
Others - when will regeneration really begin?
What does the future hold with all the changes being planned in the area?
I attempt to crystal gaze into the future as I listen to voices from the past.
The wonderfully named Moo-Cow Bakery on Avondale Road was concerned about the impact of planning blight.
That was in 1966 and Lancaster West estate was in the pipe line.
The swinging milkman of this era was probably revelling in changes to society.
The inner walkways on the estate were actually designed to allow his float to deliver milk to the doorstep.
Jump cut to other voices.
I see a man served with a compulsory purchase order and his cri de coeur to the authorities:
"As a negro, I have no status. I have no one to whom I can go for sincere advice including the Colonial office."
There is correspondence from the Oriental Casting Agency who were located at 239 Lancaster Road.
The owner fears the impending redevelopment will displace his business and not compensate adequately.
This firm specialised in supplying Afro-Asian artists to the entertainment industry.
I wonder if they provided the cast for the magical film Leo The Last that was made in 1969?
Leo was set on Testerton Street as it was being slum cleared for the building of Lancaster West.
The themes of the film (race, housing and community relations) resonate with the contemporary world.
The past is still living memory.
There is a large online community of former residents who cling to prelapsarian Notting Barns.
Sharing intimate stories and photos on the Born in W10 and W11 Facebook groups.
They have bitter sweet stories to tell about their proud working class origins.
And how their home lives were shattered for the building of the estate.
It was Harold Macmillan who said "You never had it so good".
Migration, austerity. Forks in the path, left and right.
Is this old news or new?
Council minutes tell us there were at least 6 petitions mounted by Lancaster West residents.
I was struck by the 1981 petition when 238 residents wrote to the Health and Housing Committee of RBKC.
It 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.
We understand these insects constitute a health hazard and we are taking legal advice.
We may consider withholding our rent and rates until those insects are eradicated from our estate."
Suffice it to say, praying was not enough.
Residents visited the town hall and dropped live cockroaches onto councillors in a meeting.
Fast forward to a drawing event held on the 4th July.
Young children on the estate completely reinvent their home environment.
Concrete and bricks morphed into an art world - theme park ride - battle zone for Spider Man.
Many thanks to the following children: Zaid, Cameron, Abdul, Ilyas, Jonayd and Sara.
Especially Mehdi who told several stories to illustrate his drawing.
"Once upon a time there was a boy on a boat and he went into space - a flying boat.
And he eat the King Alien and then the alien eat him.
He went back to earth running. He lived happily ever after."
I also like the way Mehdi described his story telling skills.
"I made two stories up. I use my imagination. I press the imagination button."
Let us end, by returning to that first question.
A lady who was driving along Grenfell Road, spotted me filming and stopped in her tracks.
She was moving here and what was the estate like?
I didn't mention any biblical scenes pertaining to cockroaches or an apocalyptic movie scenario.
Was she moving into one of the new flats being created as part of the £10 million regeneration for Grenfell tower?
Does she have children that will one day use the nursery or boxing club on the estate?
She is the future and may that future be born free of insects and disasters.
Lancaster West is approaching 40 years of age.
This is potentially a starting point for a midlife crisis.
If we need spiritual guidance, our mystical community gardener, Stewart Wallace, should have the last word:
"Sometimes the weather's miserable. You have to see the colour in it.
Be happy. It’s easier. Just look for a tiny bit of happiness."
Vision of Paradise
It really is essential for all artists to periodically down tools and take stock. One might want to reflect on past achievements; for me, the success of creating an ambience and space for non-artists to participate in the making rather than the reception of art. Failures are more difficult to chew over, but regurgitate we must. I never.... quite.... managed.... to make the film.... I wanted. There. I said it. Whether this was due to time, budget or technical reasons or a combination of the aforesaid, I'm not quite sure. Not wishing to sound too pompous, this soul searching might also involve questioning assumptions and decision making. If you can fruitfully review all these matters, then you might well be on the way to mapping out your destiny. Better to feel in control rather than drifting. Absolutely nothing is given and for me a lot of time is spent on research, development and sourcing funds; art is born out of this mother of necessity. I could be making art or films one day and the next working as a cement mixer or mixing cocktails in a bar at midnight. That hasn't happened yet. But definitely don't take anything for granted.
In this mini mid-life review, I can see my work as a distinctive body. Four films in the digital can and one in the pipeline. This is not counting short-shorts or juvenilia which would bring the total up to fifteen.; however my first film, This-That, made in collaboration with Jakub Barua is currently being re-mastered for the 50th anniversary celebrations at Warwick University. All four of these films, dating from 2010 onwards, are inter-related and made as part of wider art projects. There is a concern with history, social change, the built environment. They are made in and about North Kensington. I wonder how they might travel outside London or England? They are often fragmentary, multi-layered, shifting from documentary to more expressive, art based modes of film making - even within a single film. While I'm proud of them, there's a nagging feeling that I never quite mastered the communication of ideas and feelings. Maybe the next project and film?
My first film project, Flood Light, was screened at the Portobello Film Festival (PFF) 2010. It was a curated programme of shorts made by local residents and other artists; check out a split-screen tour de force called Intersections which was a crowd favourite. My own film which is called Flood Light used a dialectical technique to poetically connect the built structures of the Grand Union Canal and Westway (A40). I also weaved in some personal reflections; my father's carpentry tools and a solicitor's letter about my childhood accident when I was knocked over by a car. Flood Light is relatively high in concept and rarely plays well without a curated framework. I had a Guardian critic reviewing this at the London Short Film Festival when it was shown in a programme of narrative based films. At least he did pen a memorable review: "A random collection of images of construction in West London, set to morbid melodies, left me confused and irritated. I felt like I was in the chillout room of a techno club circa 1995." The Flood Light project was commissioned for RBKC's InTRANSIT festival. It also was my first involvement with the V&A Museum. I unearthed some hitherto unseen archive footage of the building of the Westway and was kindly given permission by Laing to use this in my film; this film includes a memorable animated sequence of transport through the ages.
Home (2012) was a short film about one of the last houses demolished for the building of the Westway (A40). I came across a haunting archive photo and a reference to a man who refused to leave his home. This was used as the basis for constructing a narrative whose theme was lost space and memory. I evoked the experience of this man with point of view shots through a net curtained window. This contrasted with an external world that was being dismantled and rebuilt. This film was nurtured by Latymer Projects and made for the opening of their project space located on the site of a former nursery on the Silchester Estate. This area was being primed for redevelopment into More West. More of that anon.
I also made a short film to mark the closure of this space called Nursery (2013). This involved interviewing five artists based here and once again used archive photos and sourced footage to locate the nursery in the wider Notting Barns, North Kensington area; note, how I'm trying to avoid the mention of Notting Hill (unsuccessfully). The film begins with a delivery of milk to the nursery and ends with a trail of milk bottles marking out the corridor and play spaces of the building. These sequences were improvised with other artists.
For PFF 2013 , I curated a programme of short films called West Ten, Fade Out. This was held at Lousie Blouin Foundation. It was a combination of all the films I had made thus far, including two made by artists who I had befriended at the Latymer Project space - Sandra Crisp and Dee Harding. Dee made a lovely portrait about my drawing and research practice called The Latymer Triangle.
My approach to art and film making in North Kensington lead to me being selected as the V&A Museum's first community artist. It also helps being in the right place at the right time. For the residency from July 2014 - February 2015, I was based at a studio space in a former council flat. This was adjacent to the nursery space on Silchester Estate where I had worked previously. Both nursery and council flats were being demolished to make way for new housing. My brief was to interact with the development of More West and make art in collaboration with local residents. I made several short films that documented events held at both the studio and at the V&A. I also filmed an interview with local residents and Joanna Sutherland who was the project architect. Perhaps my best work was a curated programme of short films called Home Sweet Home. It collated together a range of new work and old archive films from the 60s and 70s, public information shorts and one simply majestic animated work (the first seven minutes) from a 1970 film called Full Circle; this was made to address concerns about a growing world population and the impact of urbanisation. For the residency, I ran ten community events and spent a delightful week at St Anne’s Nursery working with children. All of this work culminated in a community display of art and a film screening at the V&A Museum from the 6-8th Feb 2015.
Vision of Paradise (2015) was made during my V&A Museum residency and is a prim and proper artists film. It literally is. I filmed myself in the studio overlooking the building site and observing the seasonal change of a tree in the midst of complex crane and lifting tackle motion. Down at the V&A Museum I'm looking at stain glass windows and reading Dante's The Divine Comedy. This film is very much about me (or the camera) looking and thinking, There is no direct narrative cause and effect. More a series of meditative impressions. What is home? What is community? What is art? I am leaving space for the viewer.
The film is 28 minutes and my longest to date. It is dense and multi-layered. There is also a significant shift to a more documentary mode in the last third when the new occupants of More West move into their homes; they had previously been my neighbours on Shalfleet Drive where I had my studio. The film also charts my interest in the Lancaster West estate and its connection with the 1970 film, Leo The Last; this John Boorman film was made on Testerton Street before it was slum-cleared to make way for the estate. There was also an intriguing listed building opposite the estate which was built for a Victorian stain glass artist called Nathaniel Westlake. I would spend hours looking at his work at the V&A and this is featured in the film.
Vision of Paradise is returning to the hyper-active rhythm that I first explored in Flood Light. But a significant departure is the use of 24 chapter headings that offer an explanatory framework. Flood light had a memorable score composed by my Godson, Laurence Toms-Arbel, that used glockenspiel and electronic textures. Vision of Paradise has an equally striking soundtrack composed by Roberto Bove. On the last weekend before the flat was handed over to the contractors for demolition, Roberto watched the film in the living room and improvised a live score on electric guitar. The score binds the threads of the movie together and provides an ethereal quality needed for the climatic scene.
These are the main chapter headings for the film:
1. The journey home
2. I feel the pulse of Notting Dale
3. We build in the face of nature
4. Sound waves from the 1958 Inferno
5. From the studio, I evoke paradise
6. The art of building
7. In search of Leo and a 1960s street
8. Lost and found at Freston Road
9. A guide from the past
10. The glass and the graffiti artist as one
11. A prayer for development
12. Testerton Walk on the Lancaster West estate
13.A guide through purgatory
14. The wind of change
15. A tree gifted from the Gods
16. The dream of home
17. More West has a soul but is in need of love
18. To enter paradise, one must experience divine love
There are major changes being planned for housing in North Kensington and this includes the redevelopment of council estates. We currently don't have enough homes for an expanding urban population and many can't afford to get on the over-inflated housing market. The new housing at More West is mixed tenure with Peabody social housing at one end and half a million pound flats at the other. My film is looking beyond the shop window of material culture. It employs a key concept from Dante's text about ascending into paradise from a state of purgatory - one must experience divine love. The marketing, selling and buying of homes is far from being a spiritual or loving experience in contemporary Britain.
Vision of Paradise screened at the PFF on 5th September 2015 and is also online until 20th September.
I am currently working on a film with residents at Lancaster West Estate. It has been commissioned by TMO as part of their engagement as the Grenfell tower is being regenerated. The film includes a recorded interview with the 1960s architect, an estate inspector who also lives on the estate and five other residents. It looks like being my first feature length film and will be screened at Portobello Film Festival 2016.