film screening

Hi everyone. If you are in London, come down to the Hackney Attic on August 28 at 7.30 pm. TAKING OVER THE KING’S LAND is screening at the Hackney Attic Film Festival alongside several other fine films in the Documentary Shorts programme. It will be a great evening! Best of all, it’s FREE!


Tickets bookable here: https://www.facebook.com/events/1256360871050516/

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Last Sunday I participated in a fascinating presentation and discussion around critical urbanism. Alongside film maker Andrea Luka Zimmerman and artist Cathy Ward, we discussed the position of art and the city, the role of social housing and how artists can avoid or minimise being instrumentalized particularly by developers.

These are all huge issues in today’s city. Today’s city, especially London,  is a place where social housing is being demolished to make way for luxury flats – often bought as investments and left untenanted.  Where workers such s paramedics, nurses, teachers and other professionals can never afford to buy a house or rent anything decent so they have to think twice about raising a family.

Iain Sinclair referred once to artists as the “shock troops of the developers” and he was right. In the past, it was simply about artists paving the way by making a place a bit trendy. This happened in my neighbourhood of Hoxton-Shoreditch. When I moved here as a student it was a wasteland. Aside from the Bricklayers’ and Charlie Wright’s there was nothing. You could not even get a cup of coffee. Now coffee is about all you can get, as many more functional businesses have shut up shop. In many ways I welcome that change since at least most of the social housing is intact (with some disgusting exceptions) and I like coffee (although we see to have gone from the sublime ot the ridiculous, in cups of coffee per head of population).

But now developers are actually actually instrumentalizing art and co-opting artists to make developments seem more attractive and to create a façade of a ‘give back’ to the ‘community.’ This is almost always less than it seems. Also I notice that, in an area such as East London which is so ethnically and culturally diverse, the artistic profiles championed are very white and middle class! Typified by the posh white boys doing Banksy-lite (lite as in, without political content) on a  developers hoarding. Or the other posh white boys doing a big ‘street art’ piece in Shoreditch High St – oops no wait it is actually an ad for Red Bull. (where do the developers find these guys anyway? Did they go to public school with them)

Is there another way? This is what we talked about and we offered our own experiences – and art works – and discussed the positives and negatives. What was great is that we found some like minded people at the event, and the conversation began. We did not go there with solutions, but with a desire to find solutions – and that is for the long haul not a 2 hour slot.

Coda – one of the most hilarious things has to be the naming of one development as Avant-Garde Tower.  It’s just off Brick Lane – traditionally an area of high-visibility immigrant culture – when I first visited London it still had a Jewish presence (a kosher café on Whitechapel High St was a haunt of mine), but was largely Bangladeshi except on the Sunday ‘Cockney’ market. Over the years it became a trendy go-to market and entertainment district, and it is definitely a lot of fun. Many of the houses there were incredibly run down. So it is good that new housing has been built – but I do object to it being all ‘luxury’ i.e..totally unaffordable to the average citizen, and the egregious use of the term avant-garde is just laughable.

On the other hand, the real meaning of avant-garde is ‘the foremost division or the front part of an army; advance guard; van.’ If the purpose is to cleanse the city of its working class population with military precision, then perhaps it is the vanguard, and it is aptly named.

(Jeez I remember studying Marxist theory at uni and it was just a theory … Pass the exam, move on.

Now it’s become a handbook for living, for negotiating the reality around us.)2013-11-10 12.40.03

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TAKING OVER THE KING’S LAND at Sheffield Docfest

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Sheffield Docfest has begun!  It’s the first day and yes, the weather is appalling, so far. Luckily though, the films are indoors.

TAKING OVER THE KING’S LAND has just screened at the Puny Gods Cinema in Exeter and is now at the Sheffield Docfest, the UK’s biggest and most important film festival for documentaries.  The film is 23 min long and is in the festival Videotheque, available to all the festival delegates.

Arts docs are notoriously difficult to place since many people associate the documentary genre to social issues, or art history. TAKING OVER THE KING’S LAND is a portrait of  an artist, and of a remarkable project set in the world’s greatest metropolis.

Short synopsis:

What on earth is an Egyptian doing painting the walls of a condemned block of flats in East London? As the city prepares for the 2012 Olympics, the Kingsland social housing estate lies in ruins, synonymous with crime and brutality. Taking Over The King’s Land follows artist Nazir Tanbouli and his self appointed task to take over the condemned housing estate and cover it with art. He battles the endless rain and the bitter weather of the “British summer.” Can art counter the urban atmosphere of deprivation, blight and neglect? Can it help Naz come to terms with life as an émigré Egyptian in London?


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London: a city of baristas and billionaires?

We’re still working out what we learned from running Studio 75, but it’s become clear that it’s very difficult to run any kind of independent gallery or exhibition space. That spaces that do exist are largely able to do so because they have some form of funding, or more commonly, investment, and they don’t actually run on the proceeds of their activities. Because of this, it’s very rare for these places to exist for long periods of time, and sometimes it means that projects don’t get completed, or a space just starts to begin to build a following when it’s forced to shut its doors. It’s probably always been like this, but in the past two years the insane pressure on properties in London have made it more and more difficult to support creativity. Of course, people with wealthy connections can easily afford to buy or rent properties to create vanity galleries, and the city is full of such places. But these places exist purely as entertainment spaces for rich cliques, and have nothing to do with the rest of us. Even if we wanted to visit them, we would find the art that is presented there to be, to a large extent, turgid and dreadful.

People keep asking us are going to open another space, but the short answer appears to be no. We were incredibly lucky to get the space when we did, and we don’t expect to get such luck again soon. In any case, there is not much point to try to repeat what we already did successfully, just for the sake of it; and at this stage that doesn’t seem to anything that we really want to learn from opening another space. (But never say never.)

I suppose the thing we’re digesting and being fascinated about the most is the way in which the money economy, or what philosopher Thomas Carlyle called “the cash nexus”, permeates even the most basic human aspects of what purports to be the art world. Carlyle decried what he considered the substitution of human relationships for cash relationships; he was disgusted by the idea that people saw one another and treated one another in terms of their financial relationships, the “cash nexus” when social relationships are merely reduced to economic gain. Carlyle was anything but a socialist; he distrusted socialism and championed tradition. But Carlyle’s version of tradition was quite an idealistic one, and he believed that the wealthy and responsibility for ensuring that the lives of the rest of the population were good. He believed that those who had money and position should use it for the general betterment of society. He was opposed to poverty, to exploitation and above all, to greed. Carlyle is important because he actually points to the fact that it’s not necessarily a foregone conclusion that the presence of wealth in the society should lead to impoverishment of exploitation and acceptance or admiration for greed.

Which brings us back to the idea of London the center of international finance and wealth, a city that contains within it terrible exploitation, much hidden poverty mainly in the form of underemployment and appallingly poor housing. In these circumstances is quite difficult to complain about there not being enough space or opportunities for artists, although of course that is a genuine complaint. But just as we worry about London becoming a no-go area for ordinary working people to to live in, we also worry about London becoming a no go area for ordinary working artists – that is, ones without the luxury of a private family income supporting us for all our days. Artists who need to sell work, but also pay rent; artist and who need to have day jobs in schools and colleges, community centers, retail shops, museums, and so on – traditional employers for artists. But these jobs increasingly cannot provide Londoners with housing and transport.

And it is not just artists; just recently Cory Doctorow wrote an impassioned article in the Guardian, where he pointed out how the so-called “tech city” area around Old Street is quickly disappearing as a breeding ground for important digital startups. The inexpensive office spaces are rapidly being demolished or gentrified, principally being turned into barracks of housing for wealthy overseas students. In a flash, jobs in the information industries disappear, quite possibly abroad and opportunities to train and nurture local underprivileged youth in new technologies, disappears. At best, we end up being a city of baristas and billionaires, with nothing in between.

Where will it all end? We don’t know. It will be really a pity of London goes the way of Paris. Paris is a beautiful city, don’t get me wrong. But walking around Paris, one can’t help but feel that large parts of it are simply playgrounds for the well-to-do, and stalking-grounds for the desperately impoverished underclass who huddle as beggars – and possibly worse.


I don’t really know what else to say; this is turned into a bit of a rant and that’s really not what I intended when I started. I’d like to just finish by offering a quote from the work of the artist Dave Beech:


“Political art must transform the social relations of art itself, to get rid of it to historical elitism, it’s privileges, its hierarchies and its cultural capital. Political art cannot be political if it leaves arts values, categories and institutions in place.”


But I would go further. I would say, that in order to be art, all art is inherently political.

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WHEN I was growing up in Vancouver the city had a remarkable amount of neon signs. These highly colourful signs advertised everything from diners to dry cleaners. Driving through the city at night in the back of my parents’ car was like vising fairyland. It was amazing.

As I got older I noticed the neon slowly being removed and being replaced with ordinary backlit plastic signage. Much more boring.

I was surprised to find, on a  visit the Vancouver Museum this summer, that some of the old neon has been saved and here it is, a glorious display in the museum – which is well worth visiting in any case. I tok these pics at the museum, but it’s better to see it for yourself, if you can. http://www.museumofvancouver.ca/
Vancouver neon

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The Smilin’ Buddha Cabaret was a well known jazz club in the 50’s and I heard rumours that Hendrix jammed there in his youth (he lived in Vancouver for a while) but I have no idea if it’s true. It was a legendary punk club in the late 70s.

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The Blue Eagle cafe was on Hastings St. I ate there quite often – stuff like French toast.

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The Owl drugstore at 41st, I used to pass it every day going to high school and university.

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This auto repair sign is just too good.

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The museum display. I spent ages in here, sucking it up. I LOVE neon. Real neon not the crap that “contemporary artists” put out.

AND here’s two more that are still in situ:

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You can see more on this great site: http://www.vancouverneon.com/index.htm

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Attending a demolition. Watching your place being torn down.

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I have been in this East London neighborhood for ages ever since I was a Film student. I moved little, and stayed within the same few blocks. When I first came here the area was made up of housing estates and small factories and workshops. No cafes, no restaurants, no galleries. I was not bothered about this lack because a) I didn’t have any money to spend anyway; b) I wanted cheap rent c) I like inner city urban environments and d) it was historic and interesting, full of nooks and crannies. Unexpected glories like the Geffrye museum and Albion Square, beautiful Haggerston park, the Regent’s Canal which can take you all the way to Paddington if you have the stamina.

Needless to say it has changed a lot over the years and the place is now thoroughly in the white heat of gentrification. In most respects this is really good: horrible blocks of flats are being replaced by new better housing for the people, and it’s nice to find a decent cafe.

But there is a loss, and it is personal. For the last 2 1/2 years I have had a studio on the ground floor of this housing block. I didn’t live here, we got it as a project space from the landlord, to use before it was knocked down. We did  amazing things in this poky 1-room flat!  A lot of exhibitions, film screenings, open studio weekends and more. We had artists from Spain – including the painter Daniel Cervera – as well as Romania by way of Paris, and a big book art show brought from Russia. The last show we curated was by 3 young London based Bulgarian artists, Krom Balgesky, Desi Tosheva and Teo Todorov. We screened the amazing super 8 feature Maldoror on 16mm, and has film makers Sally Potter and Dan Edelstyn visit and screen their films.

The buildings emptied and finally we were the only inhabitants. It was a cold spring and we could hear the rats rattling around in the walls of the empty rooms next to us. Finally, the landlord had to give us notice and the building was hoarded, covering all the murals that studio partner Nazir Tanbouli had done around the buildings.

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This morning, I saw the demolition crew had arrived. I watched them knock the wall in and begin to demolish the studio.

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I watched them throw all the junk out. Bits of old drawings (some of them big) and paintings, furniture, the bin – everything we didn’t take with us. We took most things, apart from a working old CRT TV that there was just no reason to keep.

Yes, I feel a bit sentimental. Usually when you move you really do move and you don’t see  what happens to your old place. It’s just funny that my new studio is close to the old one so I was able to see the whole thing from the upper floor.

We also have a new exhibition space, the Yellow Wall – it’s a big wall in a nearby cafe we frequent. It means we get to mount the shows but we don’t have to open it ourselves. Things move on and move forward.

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In 2010 I wrote an article on Critical Cities vol 2 published by Myrdle Court Press.  The whole book is really interesting, not just my essay. A recent review in  Architectural Review has been republished on the Myrdle Court Press affiliated page TINAG:



Also please check out THIS IS NOT A GATEWAY http://www.thisisnotagateway.net/

all photos ©gmciver

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