Real Estate, ICA, London, 2005
Real Estate, ICA, London, 2005

Real Estate, ICA, London, 2005

(group exhibition)
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ICA, 23–28 August, 2005

As part of london in Six Easy Steps at the ICA, curatorial partnership B+B have developed Real Estate as a response to the use and ownership of land in a city currently preparing for the 2012 Olympics and threatened with terrorist attacks.

Streets and open spaces are commercially managed, regulated by new legislation and surveyed by four million surveillance cameras (source: Meanwhile cultural policy emphasises the potential 'culturally-led regeneration' to transform the city and artists become accidental property developers through processes of gentrification and a hunger for 'creativity' within lifestyle housing.

Artists and activists featured in Real Estate take these forms of control and instrumentalisation as a starting point from which to intervene, subvert, play and disrupt the city.


City limits
Can the ICA's London show come close to capturing the hectic, savage life of the metropolis? Sarah Wise, one of the capital's biographers, finds out
The Guardian, Thursday 1 September 2005
The blurb - which billed the show as offering "starting points from which to play, disrupt and intervene in the city" - was drearily, datedly postmodern. But Real Estate: Art in a Changing City, the second in the ICA's six-part London in Six Easy Steps exhibition, was much more thoughtful and intelligent than that. Each week at the ICA, for one week only, a curator is presenting a selection of works that capture, if such a thing is possible, London as it is now: in flux, polyglot, a world of little worlds - which, to be thoroughly un-postmodern, is how it has always been.

You won't get to see Real Estate as it was dismantled on Monday, so here's what you've just missed. Curated by B+B (aka Sarah Carrington and Sophie Hope), Real Estate considered the roles taken by art and artists in the redevelopment of the city in the past 25 years. The show pondered the extent to which artists may be complicit in inflicting gentrification on London neighbourhoods, and whether art can be an effective weapon against insensitive, large-scale demolition and rebuild.

A beautiful photo essay, Adventures in the Valley (Ongoing), filled one wall of Real Estate; it was the most powerful piece in the show. Polly Braden and David Campany spent a year taking digital photographs of life in the part of the Lea Valley that is to become the 2012 Olympic Village. Part nature reserve, part postindustrial concrete wilderness, the valley has had the good fortune to have been ignored by developers; its extraordinary vistas, with Canary Wharf looming over its shoulder, are captured in the 100 or so shots that slow-dissolve into one another. Between the pylons, gasworks, abandoned depots, defunct electricity-generating station and acres of meadowland, the inhabitants of the valley have forged their own little city of allotments, play areas and small businesses (300 of which will be given notice to quit).

Braden and Campany describe this landscape as one of "intimate chaos". Someone has spray-painted "fuck Seb Coe" on a metal bridge across one of the Lea tributaries, where wildfowl are flourishing. The centre of what will be the Olympic Stadium is currently a beautiful tangle of wild flowers and weeds, seen here in weak winter sunlight. The Lea Valley has been a local place for local people, but there is no angry Little Englandism about the photos, nor any sentimentality - just a pervasive melancholy.

Ousting, and the commandeering of whole districts, has been going on all through the city's life. At the other end of the ICA exhibition space were the billboards produced by the Docklands Community Poster Project between 1981 and 1991, in an attempt to use art to awaken the 56,000 residents of E14 to the gross intrusion that would be the Canary Wharf development. The project also hoped to convey a message to the developers, using their own advertising lingo, reminding them that even though the docks had died, a large population, with its own strong identity, should be taken into account during the rebuild. It wasn't. Agit-prop sloganeering along the lines of "Big money is moving in, don't let it push out local people" was set alongside scenes of great struggles from local history: Ben Tillett, hero of the 1889 dock strike, was invoked, as were the battles for female suffrage and the late-Victorian anti-free trade movement, as though these had some kind of totemic power.

This was the fighting talk of the Thatcher era. Many of the more recent works in Real Estate came across as a sad acknowledgment that in the face of the immense wealth and power of such bodies as the 2012 Olympic bid team and the London Docklands Development Corporation, the best contemporary art can achieve is to produce an elegy for a place and a way of life that is about to be crushed. Either that, or a fingers-up satire as the scaffolding goes up. Or even an attempt to make the mega-buildings of capitalism into places of play: during Real Estate, Lottie Child ran a series of City climbing expeditions, with such City Police-endorsed manoeuvres as jumping on bollards, swinging on railings, clambering up trees and mounting lampposts (to a height not over two metres). Whether the security guards of EC3 appreciated these "multiple modes of engagement with the built environment" was anybody's guess.

Perhaps that's the most that can be hoped for, since if we're honest, it's also true that many of us come to feel something like fondness for our city monoliths, once they're up - the Wharf, the Wheel, the Gherkin, Britannic Tower, even the crappy old Telecom and NatWest towers. Treating them like a playground is quite in keeping with the more light-hearted anti-development protests of the early 1970s, when demonstrators against proposed central London motorways and office blocks regularly made their point with sit-ins, street parties and such stunts as letting loose goats in the corridors of County Hall.

As an increasingly successful "world city", London as a small-scale, comfortable, do-as-you-please sort of place faces relentless pressures. We have no government, local or national, that is truly interested in this little-London - only in grandiosity, internationalism, homogenisation. As Real Estate demonstrated, it's in the spaces between the vast institutions that Londoners continue to carve out their lives.

Spaces such as the George and Dragon pub, which forms the inspiration for the final part of London in Six Easy Steps. If Real Estate sounds impossibly grim and earnest, this should be a lot more fun. The exhibition blurb looks forward to the "abstraction and translation of the elements that define the George and Dragon". To put it another way, this celebrated Hackney Road boozer is being relocated to the ICA - and they're bringing all the barrels and optics with them.

Teetering on the edge of the graveyard of St Leonard's, Shoreditch, the George and Dragon is your classic late-Victorian pub. It very nearly passed into history, but was saved by the sort of hollowing-out and customising that has been going on in the Lea Valley. In the mid-1980s, brewers Watney Combe Reid gave up on the George and Dragon, 95 years after it opened; within weeks it was semi-derelict and was then squatted in by a group of Italian anarchists.

Shoreditch was at its lowest ebb - its traditional industries had packed up and moved out, and newcomers with new money wouldn't turn up for another few years. That part of Hackney Road was oversupplied with watering holes: when London's first council estate, the nearby Boundary Street estate, was built in the early 1890s, it was decided by the Fabians at the helm of the newly created London County Council that no pubs should be allowed on site - drink being the curse of the working classes, the LCC believed. So the estate is ringed with places to drink, and today there is a parade of pubs of varying degrees of scuzziness - "gentlemen's clubs" with bouncers and blacked-out windows, and one, the Conqueror, that had one lock-in too many and has been boarded up for years.

But the George and Dragon was bought in the summer of 2002 by performance artist Richard Battye, who decided to make his own fun. The result is a cosy cave of campery - stuffed animals, china figurines, a cardboard cut-out of Cher (Joan Collins was stolen), tasselled lampshades throwing out a warm rosy glow, a selection of the new guv'nor's granny's antiques, and a wall-mounted electric guitar of a much-missed customer: the late Tony Faulkes, ex-merchant seaman and Double-Diamond-with-rum drinker.

At the ICA George and Dragon, celebrity bartenders are promised, as some of its more newsworthy clientele get the chance to do some reverse counter-jumping in order to pull pints for the public (no names were forthcoming at time of going to press). The pub toilets - the White Cubicle Gallery - will be re-created in a Portaloo, but let's hope they don't replicate the habitual paucity of loo paper and that challengingly uneven floor-tiling in the Ladies'. London in Six Easy Steps is at the ICA, London SW1, until September 25. Part six, The George and Dragon Public House, opens on September 20. Details: 020-7930 3647. Images from Adventures in the Valley (Ongoing) can be seen in the September issue of Icon magazine.

· Sarah Wise is the author of The Italian Boy: Murder and Grave-Robbery in 1830s London (Pimlico).