Essay The role of the artist in a cross-cultural public realm 343 Perspectives Explore more from 343 Perspectives

by Emily Druiff, Director, Peckham Space

This essay examines the role of the artist, Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen, during the production artwork, ‘343 Perspectives’, commissioned by Peckham Space, in autumn 2012. Through carefully charting the territory of this artist, who proactively engages with a cross-cultural public realm, the multiplicity of the neighbouring communities are revealed. As a backdrop to which, the wider concerns of the curatorial intention of the gallery and its long term engagement with its communities, are brought into consideration. By examining the challenges presented to the artist and the gallery through the production of this artwork, broader concerns will be addressed. Including, how in an increasingly cross-cultural society, can artists work with galleries in order that they become more relevant to the globalised environment in which they are located. How can the artist, the gallery and its audiences enter into a deeper more reciprocal engagement and increased cross-cultural understanding?

The apparent contradiction of inviting Danish artist Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen to work with residents in North Peckham did not go unnoticed by the selection panel that appointed him, a panel that consisted of local residents and gallery staff from Peckham Space and an external professional, Vivienne Reiss (1). Whilst Larsen’s work crosses a variety of media, he has most notably engaged in video work internationally in India, Dubai, Palestine, USA, Lebanon and Turkey. In 2009, Larsen’s work ‘Rendezvous’ was exhibited at the Sharjah Biennial 9. The piece addressed Indian migrant workers in the Emirates and their families in Kerala, India. The piece was well received, and as a result of this, curator Andrea Schlieker approached Larsen to develop a proposal for the Folkestone Triennial 2011 under the theme ‘A Million Miles from Home’. The resulting work, ‘Promised Land’, took three main characters Mohammed, Jafar and Hasan as its inspiration and depicted the journeys of these three immigrants from Iran through Calais to Folkestone, where the resulting film was exhibited in a derelict building on the seafront. Larsen met these main characters of his film at a food distribution centre for immigrants in Calais. When Peckham Space director and curator approached Larsen to develop a new commission in Peckham southeast London, there were some interesting parallels to his work in Folkestone. Firstly the commission invited Larsen to return to a neighbourhood where he had lived for several years when studying his MA at Slade School of Fine Art. Secondly Mohammed, one of the characters in ‘Promised Land’ with whom Larsen had built a relationship in Calais, had lived for some time in Peckham. Larsen kept in touch with Mohammed following his arrival in the UK while the Home Office processed his case for residency before he moved onto Scotland. In many ways, the personal trajectory that Larsen brought to working in North Peckham helped the commissioning panel already feel as if the artist was aware of and engaged in some of the complex migratory dynamic at play in the immediate communities to the gallery.

The artist’s brief for this commission emerged from discussions between me and the North Peckham residents’ network. Following on from a previous commission where this resident’s partnership had worked with the artist David Cotterrell to address the demolition of the North Peckham Estate through a project called Slipstream (2), residents proposed that the lack of transport to the area of London in which they lived be addressed by this next commission. The residents had done some considerable research and lobbying to the local authority, Southwark Council, and to Transport for London regarding this issue, their argument being that this centrally located, high-density urban environment is the poorest served area for transport in London’s zone two. As a result, the 343 bus became the focus of the artist’s brief and from this starting point Larsen proposed to make a film, not about the bus itself, but the people that use it.

The artwork 343 Perspectives is part of wider programme of commissions at the gallery Peckham Space that address a curatorial intention to support the production of artwork that is described by Paul O’Neil and Claire Doherty as ‘locally relevant but also internationally significant’(3). It is from this curatorial understanding that this artwork can be best understood to contribute to a wider commissioning strategy at the gallery which over time assimilate a deeper relationship to the locale. O’Neil and Doherty go further to say that the ‘curator-producer had emerged as the linchpin in negotiations between artist and place’. However, it is my experience that the relationship between artist and place is not only driven by symbiosis of curatorial and artistic intention between the gallery and the artist. But that the development of these practices could not take place without the important presence of the project partners, whose voices act as a catalyst for such projects in the first instance. In the case of this artwork, the place in which the artist was located, being southeast London, brought to the fore a complex set of social relations and cross-cultural and racial tensions that had to be addressed with a unique understanding by artist and curator and resident. It is these complexities at play between the artwork the gallery and its locale presented below that are so important to reveal when considering such artwork.

The geographical location of the commissioned artwork took place within the London Borough of Southwark, which is immediately south of the river Thames. The area north of the borough is called Bankside and includes such esteemed international cultural organisations such as Tate Modern and The Globe Theatre. However, as the contemporary globalised condition appears to dictate, there is an increasing occurrence of affluence and deprivation living in very close proximity in our cities. Whilst Southwark is not one of the most deprived boroughs in the UK, it does accommodate some of the lowest financially performing areas, as recorded on the Index of Multiple Deprivation (IMD). To the south of the borough only a few miles away from Bankside is Peckham, a locality, which the IMD ranks as the most financially deprived of the borough. It has been recorded that the worst performing areas in Southwark are those running along Peckham High Street.

If, in addition to this financial profile of the area, we take a look at the cultural and ethnic profile in comparison to national averages, we again build a better picture of the complex social dynamics at play in Peckham. In the 2001 census for the UK the population of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) was 8%, with White or White Other at 92%. Whilst Southwark’s comparative research into Peckham reports that, 54.7% are BAME and 32.2% of the population is White or White Other. Whilst this information might be seen as reductive and not the most accurate data available, it does provide an important insight into the fact that Peckham’s social and cultural profile is vastly different to the national average.

An important part of these communities is a strong creative student base emerging year on year from the two near by art schools Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts London and Goldsmiths University. Both of which have made substantial contributions to the cultural landscape of South East London. In recent years, the local authority, Southwark Council has been supportive of the arts encouraging disused spaces to be used in order to set up galleries and studios. This has, in turn, attracted a high number of young and ambitious galleries (4) to the area who have changed the cultural landscape not only in Peckham but across South London. However, the current financial pressures are already undoubtedly changing the local landscape by reducing the availability of disused spaces for artists in favor of developers that generate the required income. In this complex and all too familiar scenario of regeneration there is an increased need for artists and galleries not to be priced out of the area to which they have contributed to. It would be nice to imagine that cultural spaces will not only sustain themselves but also foster greater cross-cultural dialogue and increase our understanding of what it means to live in a globalised society through their programming and engagement with audiences.

The gallery, Peckham Space, is located on Peckham High Street and operates as a small-scale free public venue, opening six days a week and (at the time of writing) operates as part of Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts London (5). The public programme offers three commissions per year that appoint established artists working in the field of social practice to engage with different communities in the immediate geographical vicinity. The curatorial strategies employed through this programme aim simultaneously for a wider civic engagement with the arts in this context and an increased understanding of the importance of social practice within the wider contemporary art ecology. As part of the development and understanding of this practice the gallery has initiated a Social Practice Network which engages in wider debates around this subject with the ambition that this will be realised through its public programme in the future (6). It is this dynamic juxtaposition of public realm and creative education institution that provides the context from which experienced artists are appointed to develop their practice for exhibition at Peckham Space.

The fact that the gallery is located simultaneously in this area of apparent ‘multiple deprivation’ whilst also balancing on the edge of a large world renowned cultural educational institution, University of the Arts London, does bring to the fore ethical concerns of representation and engagement which the artist and the gallery have a responsibility to address. When considering these responsibilities I am inspired by the cultural historian James Clifford, who in 1997 proposed the term ‘contact zones’ in order to describe the programming of educational departments within publically funded museums or galleries as sites for lively interaction “because it opened them up to contestation and collaborative activity making visible different agendas that diverse public bring to the contexts of display” (7). More recently Emily Pethick asks in ‘Curating and the Educational Turn’, “who is it that is being educated?… who is in need of education?”. What we can extract from recent debates on institutional engagement with communities is that galleries have the potential to be valuable sites of cross-cultural exchange and learning. As Felicity Allen states in a recent essay “I don’t see these individuals (communities) as citizens transformed. I see them as potential transformers, bringing their understanding of migration into institutions”(8). It is the understanding that the contemporary public gallery can have a permeable function in society, where the outside can enter into the institution, and the hope that the institution might reflect more relevant concerns through the artistic programme that has currency right now.

During the production process of ’343 Perspectives’ Larsen met residents that rely on the singular mode of transport, the 343 bus. The bus route itself became a conduit through which Larsen discovered some profound stories and engaged a broad cross section of voices. In the resulting film, Larsen does not shy away from portraying a stigmatised Peckham. However, what he does beyond this is what is of interest. On entering the gallery, the viewer saw forty-eight short vignettes which were played randomly using the shuffle function of an iTunes player. These vignettes, complete in and of themselves, depict an array of characters and scenes including a family having dinner, a child kicking ball, a young man walking his dog talking about being on housing benefit, a young black male who has been in mental care, a Nigerian man competing for the Paralympics and a community cafe to name a few. The audience’s first impression might be that the artist has reinforced a view of stigmatised Peckham, prompting stories of immigration, benefit fraud and drug dealing, similar to those portrayed in the media. However, over time the films present the viewer with a more profound story, one where the artist’s relationship with each of the characters reveals a complexity that challenges those first impressions. The artist Liam Gillick explains this phenomenon in his statement “… when you see the media evacuate from the responsibility of actually mediating or reporting things in society other people will start to use the umbrella of art to do things that are not being done by the rest of the culture. If you want to find out what is going on somewhere, you might get better information now by going to a gallery.”(9).

One of the people Larsen met was a man called Michael, who at the time of the production of the film in the summer of 2012, was training to be a
Paralympian. Larsen spent a lot of time with Michael including going to the gym, the training track and the barbers. As a result of this he was also invited to Michael’s flat where the athlete opens up to the camera and tells his story of leaving Nigeria due to poor medical provision. The story that is told by Michael and the reasons he reveals for leaving his country of origin is extremely moving. It not only shows a very dedicated man who before his amputation was held in high regard in Nigeria, but also a man with beliefs and hope that his life could change following his operation. There is a deep pertinence to the moment where he tells the viewer of his desire to represent Great Britain in the Paralympics and not Nigeria. He speaks with sadness of his dislike for his country of origin and respect for his country of residence to which he dreams of contributing. From a critical perspective the inclusion of such stories could be seen as an unethical representation of vulnerable individuals in an artwork. However, having worked with Larsen on this project and observed his methodologies I have discovered that it is not the case that he includes these stories for the purpose of spectacle or voyeurism of the other. I have come to realise that the characters with whom Larsen works are not seen by him as victims but rather symbols of transformation that challenge viewers’ assumptions, and possibly even his. For example the inclusion of Michael in the film has a powerful and transformative message of hope and I think that it is Larsen’s ambition that this story might change the viewer’s perception of Peckham.

The format of the artwork, where short films are interplayed at random with each other mean that each of the individual’s stories in the film are told in several stages. To hear one character’s whole story requires time from the viewer. This absence of a singular narrative reflects a multiplicity of perspectives in any one ‘community’. While the artist is, determining the multiple narratives by making choices about who to speak to and what to speak to them about, this lack of singular narrative reflects on the impossibility of representing a community conclusively. This is not a simple message such as those portrayed by mass media for the purposes of spectacle but instead refers to the powerful role that art can play to present a more representative view, as stated earlier by Gillick, Not only are communities themselves an ever-changing body but so too are the parts that form it. Through this artwork the artist reflects on the complex cultural identities at play within our contemporary global contemporary environment.

At another point in the artwork, Michael is filmed in a changing room taking off his street leg and then putting on his sport leg in preparation for a training session of javelin on a sports track. While he is warming up, he sings and the acoustics of his voice echo evoking a poignant sense of hope and determination. Other parts of his story include him simply getting on the bus or playing computer games in his flat, his medals hanging on the wall behind him. With each of the conversations that the artist has with Michael, the viewer is able to understand a bit more about his life. The frankness with which Michael reveals his story emphasises his pride and not his self pity. The story of Michael’s deepens when we witness him telling his barber, who is also his cousin, that he did not get selected for the Paralympics. The fact that the film documents this moment for Michael is important and is demonstrated in his proud attendance at the opening of the film.

Elsewhere in the film, Mark, a working class white male, stares directly into the camera, challenging the viewer. The backdrop to this shot is a neat yellow brick new build house, which we assume is his, with flags depicting the St George Cross hanging out of the window. Mark’s confrontational gaze to camera speaks of the underlying racial tensions within north Peckham. Whilst Mark’s confidence initially seems unfaltering, the unnaturally long duration of the gaze allows the viewer to shift their perception of Mark. We the viewer start to see a man who is ill at ease, either with himself or his environment, as opposed to the initial image of confidence and confrontation. What seems of importance is the fact that through this duration it is us the viewer who are transformed rather than ‘a local participant’.

One of the more in depth relationships that the artist developed during the production of the film was with Evans a young black male who reveals his story about his battle with mental health and how music has been key to him on his journey to recovery. Evans is a complex character depicted in several ways, one of which is via a music video, shot between his recording studio and a location on the bank of the river Thames. The video is professional quality made for Evans as an exchange for his time to be included in the artwork ‘343 Perspectives’. However, it did include stereotypical misogynistic lyrics that I had to call into question as being appropriate for a public gallery. As part of the production process I asked Larsen to show the rushes of the film to the selection panel that had appointed him, referred to earlier in this essay. I knew that Larsen felt the section with Evan’s lyrics were important to the piece, but I also felt strongly that he had a responsibility to communicate that to those residents of North Peckham that had been influential in commissioning him to make this new artwork. The selection panel consisted of a range of residents including a retired woman, a family, an arts professional as well as an employee of Transport for London all questioned Larsen on the explicit content of the lyrics. The panel wanted to know if the inclusion of this content conforms to a widely perceived stereotype of young men in Peckham. In my opinion Larsen reasonably argues that his inclusion of this content is part of Evan’s wider story that challenges those stereotypes. Part of that narrative includes Evans opening up to camera about his time in mental hospital, the pressures on young men living in Peckham and his determination to make a name for himself through music, poetry and catering. He reads some of his poetry and talks about how rap is an escape to a fantasy world that he knows is not real and how one day he wants a life that is without the pressures that he feels are imposed on him. The selection panel had a long discussion about this and could understand Larsen’s point and in the end agreed to keep this section in the film. However, I was pleased that this discussion took place as it helped both the artist and the panel gain a better understanding of the motives behind the artwork.

The opening of the exhibition 343 Perspectives was an important moment in gauging how the participants felt about their engagement in this artwork. I was reassured as to the quality and intention of Larsen’s engagement when the majority of the people he had worked with attended the opening night. However Evans sadly was one of the only participants in ‘343 Perspectives’ that did not attend the opening of the artwork. It has since been acknowledged that Evans continues to struggle with his mental health and has now returned to Ghana to live with his family away from London. One further affirmation during the exhibition took place one afternoon during the exhibition some local school children came to the gallery and watched the film. As they sat there in the gallery they were overheard talking about Evans and it turned out that one of them was a cousin of Evans. They stayed for over and hour watching the artwork excited every time that Evans came on screen. However in-between this they would have seen other stories played out and ones that showed them what else was going on in Peckham.

I would like to conclude with an acknowledgement that, while neighborhoods such as Peckham demonstrate a high level of cultures living side by side, we can start to see with the help of luminaries such as ethnographer Dr Suzanne Hall, who states in ‘City, Street and Citezen’ that such localities could be looked to as places of inspiration where we can learn to ‘reconcile the ethnic and cultural diversity that manifests on our streets’. It is my belief that through artworks such as ‘343 Perspectives’ we can see that as citizens we have much to learn from this proximity of difference. It is not only the geographical location of the commission that enables this understanding but more importantly the intention of the artist to foster a cross-cultural dialogue. I would like to end with a quote from, Stuart Hall who states that ‘the capacity to live with difference is, in my view, the coming question of the twenty-first century’ (11).

1) ‘The Art of Negotiation’ by Vivienne Reiss was on the selection panel and also is also a long term resident of Peckham.

2) ‘Slipstream’, by David Cotterrell was commissioned by Pecham Space in 2010

3) ‘Locating the Producers’ by Paul O’Neil and Claire Doherty

4) ‘South London Art Map’ devised by Julia Alvarez maps the landscape not only in Peckham but also across south London.

5) The project Peckham Space was initiated as a partnership between Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts London and Southwark Council. It opened in June 2010 with a new building on Peckham Square under the directorship of Emily Druiff receiving project funding from Arts Council England and Widening Participation as well as some other small trusts and foundations. In July 2013 the core funds providing two full time salaries were withdrawn by the University of the Arts London as a result of internal costs saving exercises to streamline activity across UAL to prioritise student engagement and income generation. At the time of writing the director has been responsible for overseeing the gallery re-launch in November 2013 as an charity independent from UAL.

6) Social Practice Network is a project the received seed funds from University of the Arts London to establish a community of practice around the area of social practice. At the time of writing the network is very much in it’s early stages and has initial plans to host a public event in November 2013.

7) Museum Frictions ref James Clifford ‘contact zones’.

8) Reassembling the Barricades: further thoughts on What does globalisation mean for education in the art museum? Felicity Allen, published in Engage 32, summer 2013.

9) What does globalisation mean for education in the art museum? Felicity Allen. Published in It’s all Mediating. Outlining and Incorporating the Roles of Curating and Education in the Exhibition Context (ed. Kaija Katiavuori, Nora Sternfeld, Laura Kokkonen, Cambridge Scholars Press, 2013)

10) Malcolm Jones was a resident of North Peckham and an employee of Transport for London which was relevant to the brief addressing the lack of transport in the area which he strongly felt was an urgent issue that needed addressing by the council. This project was used as a platform to lobby the council for increased services to the area.

11) Stuart Hall 1993

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