I have struggled to talk about Grenfell because I am an artistic "witness." I made a deep connection with the estate and its gardens several years before I started working here on an art residency. When I was officially contracted to produce a film and mural in 2015, several residents kindly opened their front door and hearts to a stranger. I navigated a delicate path between authorities and residents at a time when the latter were in dispute over the tower’s regeneration. After the tragic event in June 2017, I handed over all my photos and films to the police as part of their criminal investigation. I gave a witness statement. As we try to understand what happened at Grenfell, artists and film makers will all have a challenging but important role to play alongside the media.
I’m trying to objectively recall how I approached making art on the estate when I was commissioned by the TMO (Tenant Management Organisation) to create a tiled art work and short film. The TMO were impressed with my V&A Museum and RIBA funded residency on Silchester Estate. I convinced them that an open-ended, durational process would work far better in delivering the outcomes rather than the original two weeks envisaged. As it transpired I was on the estate for approximately 1 year 2 months. When the time is right I will talk about the film, The Forgotten Estate, in more detail.
The original plan was to design a large tile art work to cover an area approximately 3.6m wide by 2.2 m high in the newly formed ground floor entrance at Grenfell. This was to be created with the residents and children of the tower block. I was given a completely free brief as regards design. I decided to use large scale drawings as the blueprint. But as the drawings were so impressive in their own right, I decided to just stick with that as the completed art work. In total, 4 large scale drawings were made in the temporary lobby, on the elevated concrete deck just outside the tower and during the Grenfell fun day.
The design for the art work was inspired by the classic blue and white willow pattern used in pottery. I was constantly sketching in the ceramic gallery at the V&A where this pattern had caught my eye. I always envisaged using an image of Grenfell tower in the completed design and perhaps to have this framed by an equally large tree. I saw a flock of birds in flight as representing the residents energised by their newly renovated building. The sessions with the kids would allow space for their own images and experiences to be added. That was the plan. As it transpired, the most successful drawing was realised at the Fun Day.
The Grenfell Fun Day on 30 May 2015 was held mainly as a form of respite from the conflict taking place during the renovation. I was invited to attend and hold a workshop. A teenager looked at a blank sheet of paper. "What do we draw?" "Absolutely anything you like." Most children had the desire to draw or write what came naturally to them. The tower block they lived in. A girl picked up a leaf and sketched this. Animals started to appear. One wrote the memorable words: live, laugh, love. The cultural identity of the children also became a point of self-reflection with a Moroccan and British flag. The outline drawing in oil pastels was made by approximately 20 children and I then coloured it in.
The art work then fell into a state of limbo. I had shown it to the TMO who were happy and also took it to a residents meeting. This would prove to be my last engagement and memory of the estate in May 2016. In the middle of that meeting, shortly after I had talked about the art work, one of the residents had challenged me over my film and this annoyed another resident, whose tense relationship with each other I had observed before. They then had a fight, then and there, in the meeting at which children were present. It lasted for about 5 minutes. Blood had to be cleaned off the walls. I believe they shook hands shortly after.
I could understand how the residents were wanting to get on with lives after the huge impact of the building works. But the TMO? Why didn't they contact me again to hang the art work in Grenfell? I can only assume they were not pleased with the way my residency had developed, especially in terms of the film project. I held onto that art work for a year. After the fire it assumed importance as a visual and textual testimony to a destroyed community: Live, laugh, love. I'm pleased that this has been handed over to Grenfell United and is in the new community space for survivors and the bereaved.
I have now started work back on Silchester estate across the road from Grenfell. After the anniversary of the fire, we will hold an Open Estate Garden weekend on the 30 June and 1 July. This will display the art created by residents. I have plans for a dance or performance piece facilitated by Dance West, although this might have to be staged later on in the summer.
Over the years I have self-published photo books as well as making hand crafted books. I have increasingly turned to the latter as a means of reflecting on my engagement at Lancaster West and on the people I met and befriended. I am constructing my own self-questioning narrative. Did I make the right decisions in terms of my engagement? How will my imagery and art work be reproduced and the film footage help with any inquiry or criminal proceedings? Above all, how can I help the victims and community? I know that this was a "voiceless" community that nobody really listened to. I have also thought about my interaction with the press as they strive for the dramatic and poignant human story as well as the political message behind Grenfell. During the previous 9 months, I have developed an inner artistic voice that has kept the media, by and large, at arms length. These books, as I turn the pages, are part of my opening up.
Imageless and Voiceless
Booklets, 32 pages each, 2018
Oil pastel drawings, 5.5 x 4 inches
Just heard about Grenfell Tower. Ghastly. What on earth went wrong?
I was wondering if we could get this picture to do a story on.
I would be very grateful if you could give me a ring as soon as possible to discuss an article I am working on for this weekend.
I am the Dangerous Structures surveyor on the tower following the incident. If you were involved in the original construction it would be good to talk or meet you to discuss how certain elements work together.
Constantine, various journalists have tried to contact me but I am not responding, so I would appreciate your confidence and not pass on any of my contact details.
I don’t want him to think I’m stalking him! I don’t actually need him to discuss the fire. It is the building we are interested in and the original vision.
One thing I'd say is that if we want to tell this hugely important story then now is the time, before the world moves on to the next headline. We have three million readers worldwide, a lot of them policy makers. Do please let me know if you change your mind.
I am contacting you in relation to a live broadcast we are holding tomorrow evening. The event will consist of an audience of local Councillors, residents, firefighters, volunteers etc. If this is something you may consider being a voice for, please let me know.
I do totally understand your reticence to give opinions on the matter, but could I trouble you with a quick question – do you know of any nearby towers that have a similar interior, i.e. common parts and layout?
We are not tabloid journalists in for a quick story. We do very considered films on very difficult and distressing subjects.
Thanks for the clear details in each of your blog posts. In an attempt to lend a little assistance from afar, a group of us have been building up three Wikipedia articles [[Lancaster West Estate]] [[Grenfell Tower]] and [[Grenfell Tower fire]]. Please go to these pages and tell us of any inaccuracies.
I would rather use an image that speaks to the life in the community rather than awful images of destruction and tragedy to publicise the auction. The last thing I would want to do is appear to sensationalise the suffering of so many people.
If you do have a change of heart, let me know. We would happily make a £200 donation to a Grenfell charity for use of your images.
Dear Mr Gras, the V&A have been contacted by the Detective Constable from the Art and Antiques section of the Metropolitan Police in connection with the Grenfell Tower enquiry. She is working on the construction side of the investigation and has been tasked with identifying and contacting every company who may have information about the construction or refurbishment of Grenfell.
I'd like to ask some questions on a positive note. I'm not press or politics. I knew that building was fundamentally safe. I'd really appreciate some answers regarding.... Sorry I can't say here.
Booklet for Stewart Wallace, 2018
Oil pastel and pencil on paper
Folded paper: 8 inches by 11.5 inches
Unfolded paper 16 inches by 23 inches
I suppose it was inevitable, as I return back to work with residents on the estates around Grenfell, that my own private art work would move in a corresponding pattern. Since the new year, I have made two artist's books.
The first, featured above, is dedicated to Stewart Wallace, the community gardener at Lancaster West estate. This is a fold out book that consists of 3 separate images drawn with oil pastels and pencil. The title page has Stewart in his garden, his sanctuary. He invites me back at Easter to see the full fruits of his labours when the strawberries and raspberries will come into season. I have visualised this in the yellow pages of the book. Stewart has his back bent to the soil and tries to avoid looking up as he lives in the shadow of the burnt out Grenfell. Image two in the fold out section of this book, illustrates the tower with 71 spherical objects, each one representing an adult and child and unborn baby, that died as a result of the fire. On the reverse side of this double-image page is a darkened abstraction. It might be a space inside one of the flats of that tower block. It seems to still flicker and pulse as if there is an after glow from the fire that can never be extinguished. There is a legal and societal search to find meaning and identity in this now truly Brutalist architectural ruin. Are there any fragments left of tooth enamel? Can this domestic object be reunited with the survivors and bereaved? I fold back the pages of the book and put it into storage. I wonder what Stewart will make of this booklet when I show him.
The second book, while having more of a traditional structure of pages (hence no fold out and fold back challenge), is actually far more complicated to read. It's a book I've made for myself. You might think the author would be in control of every aspect of the image making. Sorry! The world of my art does not operate in this fashion at this moment in time. I can only offer tentative dream-like suggestions and hope you, the viewer-reader, can make positive or negative connections that might offer some resolution to the narrative. Beyond the strawberry patch, perhaps you can help me decide what is the future? Or will there always be an artistic enigma to the tragedy of Grenfell?
Untitled cover page: This is me dressed as an artist
But what am I leaning on or pushing away from?
Pages 2-3: we have cut to another time, but the blue prevails
4 media images of Grenfell projected in rapid succession - where are we?
Pg 5: I knock on the front door of a flat on the 21st floor
Who restored my hair, yellowed my face and gave me pink earrings?
Page 4: No one can answer my knock, the family who live here are on holiday
Why does page 4 not precede page 5 and what are these new buildings?
Pg 6-7: I see my face briefly glimpsed in the metallic panel of a lift
Are we going up or down or passing through new pipe work?
Pg 8-9: I have drifted in an out of consciousness, but have arrived
Who are these two strangers wanting to dance with me?
Pg 10: The sun sets at the end of empire building (after Turner)
Pg 11: I am dancing alone across a square
Are you happy to dance or sad as the empire ends?
Pg 12: The End
Or is this a new beginning?
Booklet for Constantine Gras, 2018
Oil pastel and pencil on paper
As a child during the 1970s, I would be consuming American popcorn movies at the ABC Edgware Road / Harrow Road. I recall When The North Wind Blows (man co-exists with tiger, 1974) and King Kong (men in conflict with giant ape, 1976).
Driving past the cinema and on another plane of reality was the author J G Ballard. Using the recently built Westway "motorway" from central London to his home in Shepperton, Ballard would pass the faded visage of the ABC with its local community displaced by slum clearance and road building. Further on he might spy the iconic Brutalist Trellick Tower and ponder the news headlines critiquing the social housing bloc that had degenerated into vandalism and tenant isolation. Nearing the West Cross interchange, perhaps Ballard has a vicarious thrill: hand caressing the steering wheel; foot poking the accelerator; car sliding and swerving, dangerously.
This type of imaginative journey across the Westway would inform the subject matter of Ballard's seminal trilogy: Crash (1973), Concrete Island (1974) and High Rise (1975).
Here's a quick summary for the uninitiated:
Crash postulates a new form of human sexuality, born from the collision of car on car. A film adaption was vividly directed by David Cronenberg in 1997 and initially banned by Westminster City Council.
Concrete Island is about an architect who crashes his Jaguar off the Westway and struggles to survive in a cocooned wasteland.This is slated to be a future Christian Bale film.
High Rise (my personal favourite) has a classic opening. The protagonist, is admiring the view from his balcony and tucking into the tasty morsel of dog. Forget co-existence or conflict with nature. Welcome conspicuous consumption of the canine variety. In 2015, High Rise will hit the cinema screens.
In these dystopian texts, Ballard is inverting the 1960s confidence in high rises and inner city motorways. These were seen at the time as progressive solutions to housing and transport needs.
The Guardian recently celebrated Ballard, five years on (after death). Seven writers articulated what was unique and memorable about his work. Many visual artists and film makers could also reference the impact of his writing. I first discovered Ballard in the early 1980s as a moody teen listening to Joy Division. I revisited Ballard in 2010 when devising Flood Light. This involved a film making guided tour under the Westway and a re-enactment from Concrete Island. I have also made a trio of short films about the urban environment of the area with Ballard as a guiding spirit.
At an art event recently, I met Ray, who during the 1970s lived in the twenty-floor high rise, Frinstead House, on the Silchester Estate. He may or may not have been turned on and tuned in. But he was definitely having apocalyptic visions of vehicles dropping out of the concrete sky. This was a nightmare that came true. Ray recounted, how one day, he witnessed a lorry crashing over the barrier and bursting into flames. He made a drawing of this incident (see image above).
On a related note, I recently read an archive letter written by Fred Vermorel and published in the Times in Nov 1978. Fred is now Associate Professor of Communication at The American University in London. Back in the day he was living at Frinstead House with his wife Judy. They could almost have been characters in the scary fictional High Rise of J. G. Ballard. This is what Fred wrote to the press:
"The noise is sickening. We live day and night with the unceasing thunder of motor vehicles, flat out and passing up and down the several slipways, and with the racket of passing trains (goods trains shunt through the night). All this noise hits our home directly. It is impossible to read, think or listen to music.
I must confess that the vandalism which is slowly eating away this particular estate elates rather than horrifies us. How else does one react? The GLC is dead to transfer requests and there are no effective ways of protest or redress. If to destroy these places is some sort of crime, to have built them is worse! All around us are squatters, living in “derelict” (GLC owned) property. Built by speculators at the turn of the century, these houses are shielded from road and rail lines, are solidly built on a human scale, and have gardens. We would gladly rent one. But they will shortly be demolished.
The GLC is still building unsheltered dwellings all along the Westway. With millions of pounds worth of expertise and materials, it is disseminating the suffering and environmental poverty I have described: factory farms for psychosis and barbarity.”
Fred and Judy Vermorel were being driven out of their senses, but successfully campaigned to be rehoused. However we should note, they still found time while at Frinstead House during 1978-79, to write the first book about the Sex Pistols and produce a punk song for the Cash Pussies.
During my forthcoming V&A Museum Community Artist in Residence, I hope to be based in a studio next to the high-rise, Frinstead House. I will definitely tap into the creative energy of Ballard and the DIY spirit of punk. Hopefully realise some long-term art projects that render and re-imagine the Westway and connect old residents in the high rises with new occupants of buildings currently being erected on the estate. I need to provide a counter-measure to the radicalism of Ballard and stereotypical perceptions about estate culture. Estates are not a car crash. Dig beneath the veneer and talk to people who have made this their home. There is a space here for high quality, multi-cultural and collaborative art.
An anthology of eleven spooky stories "for fearless readers of ten upwards" is being devoured by an eight year old boy.
The book in question is Alfred Hitchcock's Ghostly Gallery. That boy, me.
I have a vague memory of a Puffin Book sales rep attending my primary school in 1974. She waxed lyrical about the latest books and left behind a catalogue. After begging 30 pence from home, I placed an order and next week the said book materialised. It had a lovely Ghostbuster cover illustration by the artist, Barry Wilkinson. Literary phantoms and apparitions were conjured from the imaginations of H.G. Wells, Robert Louis Stevenson et al.
Was the boy a tad disappointed? There were no contemporary stories in the Hitch style. No Birds or Psycho. For even at this stage in life, Bodega Bay and showers, were etched in my consciousness; a generation breast fed on cinema mediated by television.
Schooling intervened to impose a "dubious" (at the time) value of learning by rote. Reading, writing and arrrr-rithmetic! It did however provide a focus to the act of reading. Books. Discreet and unassuming objects. Turn the page. Unleash the inner voice with a tale to tell.
Jump cut to secondary education and another memory, this time of an English class. I see a slighter older boy who copies out whole sections of text and passes it off as his own. Copyright? I didn't know the meaning of the word. My teacher rather playfully comments in the margins: Bram Gras or Edgar Allan Gras?
Flash forward. Today is World book day in the UK and I'm chilling out with Horror: The Definitve Guide To The Cinema of Fear. A most informative survey of cinematic horror from its origins in gothic literature to postmodernism and beyond. Just the tonic for some extra-curricular research.
Cross fade between 1974 and 2014, bookish boy and artful man. Time breeds all manner of change, but I'm still possessed by books (and films) that make the flesh creep. Although the internet has revolutionised book culture and e-books represent the future, I'm hankering for a 1,128 page book published in 2007: Mario Bava: All the Colours of the Dark by Tim Lucas. It retails at about £185. That's a lot of pennies for a humongous bank of piggies. Better still, see if the BFI or the British Library have a copy.
End note. I cannot check out books from my local pop-up library in Kensal Rise. This was set up by the local community in resistance to the council closure of the library. In the last few weeks, building works have commenced to convert the building into housing and a skip was summoned to dispose of the books.