UTOPIA (Roundhouse 2015)
Every two years the main space at the Roundhouse is offered to an artist to make whatever they like. Marcus Davey the director of the Roundhouse asked me whether I would like to have the main space for August 2015.
The first thought I had was to stage the Canterbury Tales all over the entire building twenty four hours a day – I wanted to get away from my obsession with massive inequality but after a couple of months I had to accept that my obsession with massive inequality was my obsession. So I went back to it. Some people can’t see a connection between the different things I do across genres but to me they are all ways of telling a story and each story has a way it would like me to tell it. I try to make the familiar unfamiliar so we can really look at it properly. I also try to understand and normalise what seems exotic or beyond comprehension.
Block 9 the radical design team worked with me to design a massive immersive installation. When you walked into the Roundhouse you saw a massive mountain of cardboard boxes in the middle, advertising Happiness, Popularity, Wealth, and Spirituality – all the promises that lure you into buying expensive stuff you don’t need. On the left was a plastic curtain you could walk through with a short film on a loop (link to Times Square film). On the right as you came in there were some dustbins and was a car smashing into T More’s shop front. If you sat in the car you heard Steven’s story (see below), if you listened by the dustbins you heard people telling their stories about education – children from poor backgrounds who were shoved into the lowest streams showing that even in state schools the class system was alive and well. The middle class white kids were in the top streams with some of the ethnic kids while the poor white kids and the Caribbeans were always stuck at the bottom. (One of those who had been told he was too stupid to even take any GCSE’s is graduating this year from the Guildhall School of Drama and Music. He ended up educating himself by reading Plato’s Republic in Feltham Youth Offenders Institution.)
I wanted the installation to feel like you could walk around the city and stop and get close to strangers and hear their stories. To do this you had to get close, put your ear close to the speakers and listen carefully. You walked from the bins and the car into a bookshop where the shelves whispered to you and then into what we called the Urban Warzone, piles of rubble from which voices from all sides of the social spectrum spoke to you, a teenage robber and a boy who was constantly robbed, a homeless woman and a sex worker in a telephone box. You arrived at a central space with a film with people reading excerpts from More’s Utopia – this space from a book published in 1516 proved surprisingly popular with young urban people
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZqEmGVHhbIo (timelapse of the set being built followed by a group of people reading from Thomas More’s Utopia which was part of the installation.)
I recorded interviews (with Rebecca Lloyd Evans and Sana Hall). Then sound designer Jovan Ajder hid dozens of tiny speakers on loops all around the installation, all whispering people’s stories in their own voices. We share the same streets but our experience of them can be radically different.
On the left of the installation through the Times Square film you entered a space we called the Factory where the boxes were being made. We discussed whether we should fill them but I decided that it made sense to leave the boxes empty, just empty promises. In this space there were some recordings of where the ideas had come from – Plato’s Republic, Baudrillard’s Simulacra Simulacrum, a DVD of the Matrix, Guy Debord’s Societ
Some people found the installation dystopian. But to me what made it Utopia was the beautiful way disenfranchised people articulate and reflect on their experience. It seems to me that this is what Hannah Arendt defines as a miracle, “interruptions of some natural series of events”, the act of bringing something new into the world.
Here is a small taste - a couple of young men talking about their lives on council estates minutes away from very affluent neighbourhoods. Most of London has this kind of social mix but Camden is very extreme from the Regency mansions opposite Regents Park to very rough council estates.
Steven – (on the car radio).
Steven is now working full time at the Roundhouse).
“The first ever time I got stabbed was by my father, I was probably about 11 or 12 at the time. He was a drug addict addicted to crack cocaine. He asked me to go get his crack for him one day. I went an’ got it, an’ when I got back, instead of keepin’ it in my mouth I put it in my pocket an’ it had rained, so the crack had dissolved, so basically it was no good, he couldn’t smoke it.. an’ erm.. he got so angry at me that he pul-run at me with a screwdriver.. an’.. I knew he was gonna do it because my dad was a very violent person. He kicked me in my chest, I fell to the floor, an’ as I fell to the floor, he threw the screwdriver into my leg.. and then um, like just turned it once or twice an’ he said “That’s what you get. Next time you’ll learn.”
Well the first ever crime I ever committed, was with my father. We did a street robbery together. I was only 10 at the time, and I’d seen my dad go from sellin’ drugs, to takin’ drugs to committing burglaries, to street robberies, to loads of different crimes, too many to mention right now. So it became the norm, because if my dad was doin’ it, well I should do it. Like that’s how most kids are brought up, if your dad works, you tend to work. If your dad’s a drug addict, you tend to look up to that and are likely to become a drug addict, so just yeah it became the norm. If that’s what I saw, that’s what was around me so I assumed that’s what I was to do, that’s what my grown ups were showin’ me so..it’s all I knew.
Um.. yeah so.. it started off with a street robbery, then it led to.. sometimes we would go out an’ pretend to sell fake drugs or he would wrap up fake drugs an’ ask me to hold ‘em whilst he would be sellin’ ‘em, so then he could earn money.., so many different things.. fake sponsorship, yeah. That was one that he loved… makin’ fake sponsorship forms an’ then sendin’ me and my sister and sometimes my younger brother from door to door tryin’ to collect sponsorship money, makin’ out like we’re gonna do a ten kilometre run or a 20 metre swim or something for charity. Whatever he made up in his head and then he would go to the shop an’ get all these forms printed and send us around and he’d make it all look official like with the school’s name. And then he would put our house number or something on the form so when they ring you’d have my mum answerin’ the phone makin’ out like she’s the school teacher or whatever to say it’s legal. Ah yeah he was funny, yeah my dad- that’s one thing about him - he’s an inventive criminal, basically.”
Awate – (heard from the rubble). Awate is a student, political activist and musician.
I was standing in an area of my estate just outside of my estate, sorry, where it’s the pathway from Agar Grove to Camley street which goes into Kings Cross area, the whole area, that whole road is - is the most cracked out area, ‘cause it is the road from Camden to Kings Cross.
And at like 8pm, I looked at my side and I saw 60 white people. All of which looked between the age-ages of 24 and like 32, all of them were smiling. Half of them were wearing matching red T-shirts, with like a slogan on it. There were two leaders at the front.. and it was the scariest thing I’d ever seen in my entire life. It was like they were sending, reconnaissance squads to go and scout out the area..and you know like before the Death Star arrives, they first send out one ship first. It was absolutely frightening, it was so weird to see them... and they were all smiling and really happy. They looked like they all had jobs in like PR companies and really successful and they were just jogging so happily. And in that area everyone gets stopped and searched because of their appearance. None of these people would have been…they would have been offered a ride by police. And it’s the strangest thing I’ve ever seen. And it was really frightening, it was like 8pm and anyway now it’s-it’s the middle of winter so you know it’s been dark for hours. And just the ponytails and the new shoes and the big-the big containers full of what I’m guessing is like kale juice or something that all of them had was…
Penny: What were they doing?
A: They were just jogging! But there were 60 of them! And they were led by two leaders, d’you know what I mean? There were two lead joggers in front, and the rest were just behind. And they were all just like so happy in the most cracked out part of my area, it’s not…It’s weird. It’s a sign of things to come, like it’s them saying “Hey, we’re here,” you know, “We’re gonna jog round your area at night.”
Well an area where, very simply, they don’t... very simply - they’re not supposed to feel safe in that area, and it’s supposed to be like that. The-the government have made it so that they’re not supposed to feel safe there, but people of my social class are, because we have lower standards, right?
The whole reason that area looks so terrible, the whole reason it’s been neglected, the whole reason why there are weeds growing out of… out of piles of bricks that have been there for - for decades. There’s literally, literally graffiti there from the year I was born, 23 years ago. It says ‘Talk 91.’ You see ‘Tox’ everywhere, you see ‘Tox’ everywhere ‘cause Tox is a legend but you see tags, literally graffiti tags there from the early 90s, and it’s because it’s okay to neglect it when-when me, a black person lives there, when the poor people live in that estate. Um it’s completely okay because it’s part of the system’s intentional neglect of-of an area until it reaches a point where it’s time to move some rich people in… It’s only the reason I was so afraid is because I know when I see that, I know that police are coming with them. I know that higher rents come with them. I know that I’m not gonna be able to afford any of the products around my area because those people are jogging through.
Awate’s story was published on the Guardian website and we were contacted by the Good Gym who were the joggers he had seen. They were shocked by his reaction as they jog into areas to do good deeds and then jog out again. They see themselves as conducting missions of mercy. Awate experienced it as an invasion.